The Big Laugh
Appointment in Samarra
The Doctors Son and Other Stories
Hope of Heaven
Files on Parade
A Rage to Live
The Farmers Hotel
Sweet and Sour
Ten North Frederick
A Family Party
Selected Short Stories
From the Terrace
Ourselves to Know
Sermons and Soda-Water: A Trilogy
THE GIRL ON THE BAGGAGE TRUCK
IMAGINE KISSING PETE
we're FRIENDS AGAIN
THE FARMERS HOTEL
THE SEARCHING SUN
THE CHAMPAGNE POOL
THE WAY IT WAS
The Big Laugh
A NOVEL by
RANDOM HOUSE • NEW YORK
© Copyright, 1962, by John O'Hara
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Con-
ventions. Published in New York by Random House, Inc., and simul-
taneously in Toronto, Canada, by Random House of Canada, Limited.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 62-12124
Manufactured in the United States of America by The Colonial Press Inc.
DESIGN BY TERE LoPrETE
David Lewelyn Wark Griffith
Rudolph Alphonso Guglielmi di Valentino
Greta Louisa Gustafsson
The Big Laugh
People know when you are trying to be something
that you are not.
This law protects some good people who are in dan-
ger of turning bad; it also makes it impossible for a lot
of bad people to become good.
By the time a man is forty his people — his family,
friends, acquaintances, enemies, and even total strangers
who have some reason to be aware of his existence — have
decided what kind of man he is. Their judgment may be
wrong, but it is their judgment and it is usually final, be-
cause people in a group lack the patience to reconsider
the evidence they have on one man. (The man himself,
when he is being part of a group, makes the same kind of
absolute, final judgments of other men as individuals.)
JOHN O HARA
It is therefore unreasonable for any man to expect or
to hope for a second mass human judgment that will im-
prove his standing. By the same token, although a man
may fall from grace, he will continue to enjoy the good
will of those who had earlier convinced themselves that
he was a good man. People who have made up their
minds about a man do not like to have their opinions
changed, to reverse their judgments on account of some
new evidence or new arguments, and the man who tries
to compel them to change their minds is at least wasting
his time, and he may be asking for trouble.
This is a story about a man who tried to be some-
thing he was not; who wasted his time, and asked for
and got a lot of trouble. As it happens, he was a rascal to
begin with, and in a rare surge of perspicacity the people
recognized him as such from the start. During his middle
period he did nearly everything he could to behave him-
self, but he only confused the people and while confusing
the people he also confused himself, with results that were
predictable because they had been predicted. This is a
story, by the way, that will comfort those who believe that
no man is all bad; in the man's middle period he be-
haved very well indeed. However, it is not a story that
offers much to those who believe in the permanence of
regeneration. Reasonable people among those who be-
lieve that no man is all bad will be content with this man's
middle period, and may feel that the score comes out
even, so many points on the side of good, the same
number of points on the other side. The people who want
regeneration to be permanent are fanatics for the happy
THE BIG LAUGH
ending, dissatisfied with themselves and with everyone
else, unrealistic men and women, anti-Christs, who were
entertained by the miracles but learned nothing from Cal-
vary. They are always the angriest, too, when regenera-
tion does not take.
Hubert Ward is the name of the man who is the
principal character in this story, the public name. His full
name, which not many people knew, was Richard Hu-
bert Ward, but when he decided to go on the stage he
dropped the Richard in favor of the slightly more exotic,
romantic-sounding Hubert. Hubie Ward went on the
stage because there was almost nothing else for him to
do. He had no money, his education had not gone be-
yond three and a half years at three preparatory schools,
he had no salable talents, and his relatives were already
so fed up with him that the only one, a maternal uncle,
who could be persuaded to offer any help, consented to
use his influence to get Richard Hubert Ward a job with
a construction firm in South America. It sounded like an
interesting proposition to Richard, who was then twenty
years old; the pay was good, and South America, full of
senoritas and adventure, seemed a glamorous part of the
world. But by the luckiest chance Richard fell into con-
versation with an engineer who had recently returned
from the construction project, and Richard learned that
the company was finding it impossible to hire men. Ma-
laria and siflis were common, and there was constant
danger from panthers, anacondas, and truculent Indians
armed with poison-tipped darts and blowguns. No North
American had renewed his two-year contract, the engi-
JOHN O HARA
neer said, a bit of information that particularly interested
Richard, whose uncle had been insisting that he sign on
for four years. Richard never spoke to that uncle again.
Down to his last few dollars, without a high school
diploma or the equivalent, with no special training or
aptitudes, Richard in the late Nineteen-Twenties for the
first time in his life was seriously worried about himself.
His first thought was that he might get a job in a boys'
summer camp; he was a good swimmer and a fair diver;
he had never won any prizes at tennis but he was sure he
could beat most twelve-year-olds; he could pick up wood-
craft out of a book. But the word book reminded him of
his scholastic record, and he well knew that neither of his
three schools would recommend him as counsellor at a
camp for young boys. He then turned to his assets. He
had twenty-six dollars in cash, three suits and a dinner
jacket, two pairs of shoes and a pair of evening pumps; a
wrist watch and a gold pocket watch and chain; a gold
cigarette case that he had taken from a woman he met in
a speakeasy. The gold watch and cigarette case could be
pawned, but after they were gone the cash situation
would be critical. He had pawned his raccoon coat and
his overcoat for the summer, and now that he was a city
dweller he would never redeem the coonskin. He of
course owned no securities or other valuables, and for
reasons to be touched upon later in the narrative he had
to rule out all prospects of inheriting money or property.
He next considered what he had to offer in the way
of intangible assets. He was a handsome young man of
slightly more than medium height, with even teeth and
THE BIG LAUGH
a clear complexion, and even if he had been willing to do
so he could not deny that girls and women of all ages —
although not all girls and not all women — regarded him
as attractive. Many members of the opposite sex (each
thinking she was being original) had commented on his
blue eyes: "They're very deceptive," the women would
say. "So innocent at first, like a choir boy's. But now you
look more like a choir boy gone wrong." They often spoke
of his roguish eyes, sly eyes, devilish eyes, eyes like Wal-
lace Reid's. He knew his appearance to be an asset, and
so were his manners, his taste in clothes, his conversa-
tional line. He danced rather well, played the piano just
well enough to read sheet music, played bridge well
enough to sit in with his contemporaries, and he had a
very good memory for names and faces. When he went to
a restaurant the headwaiter usually treated him with that
special amused respect that is reserved for young men
who look as though they might some day be rich. But
Richard Hubert Ward was not given to the kind of self-
deception that would cause him to overestimate the cash
convertibility of his intangible assets. For the first time in
his life he was completely on his own, and he was mo-
mentarily terrified. He did not blame himself for his pres-
ent condition, but his predicament was so serious that he
postponed the pleasure of blaming others. This, he real-
ized, was a time to put his brain to work — and if he had
had one thing drummed into him throughout prep school
and the earlier years it was the fact that he had a good
At the moment he was living in an apartment in East
JOHN O HARA
Tenth Street, but he would have to get out in two weeks,
when the regular occupant returned. Phil Sturtevant, a
writer for Time, had lent him the apartment while Sturte-
vant, a very junior writer, was on a late spring vacation.
He had known Sturtevant at Andover, the first of Richard
Hubert Ward's three prep schools, and Sturtevant may
have been surprised to be reminded that they had been
such close friends, close enough so that Sturtevant found
himself lending his apartment to a younger schoolmate
whom he had almost forgotten but who remembered him
with such enthusiasm. Their reunion took place at Dan
Moriarty's speakeasy; Richard Hubert Ward went home
with Sturtevant that same night, stayed on a few days,
and offered to pay half a month's rent for three weeks'
occupancy. Sturtevant did not mind taking Ward's post-
Richard Hubert Ward had not remembered to in-
clude the cheque among his liabilities, and he was not
too confident that Sturtevant would accept his explana-
tion. He therefore had to be out of the apartment before
Sturtevant's return, and it seemed advisable to be out of
New York City. It was Ward's first bad cheque — indeed,
his first cheque of any kind — and he had drawn on a non-
existent account in the New Jersey bank where his mother
kept her small account. In her present frame of mind his
mother not only would not cover the cheque; she might
well tell the bank to go ahead and prosecute. Richard
Hubert Ward conceded that he had done an impulsive,
stupid thing, but having done it for such a piddling sum
as $37.50, he repeated it at a speakeasy for a hundred in
THE BIG LAUGH
order to finance a party in Sturtevant's apartment. The
idea of the party was an initial part of his new campaign
to use his brains: he would have some people in, give
them drinks, and one or two of them would surely lend
him money or show him a way to make some. Richard
Hubert Ward had always believed in his luck, and with
luck and brains he might come across something that
would enable him to give Sturtevant cash in return for
He decided to invite five young women and five men;
the men from the financial district, the girls from Green-
wich Village. He ordered the liquor from Sturtevant's boot-
legger and the canapes from Sturtevant's delicatessen
man, fully intending to pay on delivery, but the bootlegger
and the delivery boy assumed that Sturtevant was to be
charged, and Ward did not correct them. At six-fifteen of
a warm June day the guests began to arrive, and at half-
past six the party was in progress.
The young men were all a few years older than Rich-
ard Hubert Ward and none of them knew him very well,
but in inviting the men he had said over the telephone,
"Having some girls in. Actresses and models. So I can't
ask you to bring your wife." The implication was plain
enough, the inference was correctly drawn. The girls
came because they were asked; a party required no other
explanation. Some of the girls knew each other and so
did some of the men, but none of the girls had met any
of the men until the evening of the party. Before nine
o'clock, however, one of the girls and one of the young
men had retired to the bedroom, and another couple
JOHN O HARA
seemed to be well on their way. The men had taken off
their coats and vests, the girls had taken off their shoes
and one had removed her girdle. "Thizz a hell of a good
party," said one young man to the host, but the host did
not think so. His plans were not working out. The young
man who had retired to the bedroom suddenly appeared,
embarrassment or disgust on his face, and left the apart-
ment without saying goodnight to anyone. His father was
a vice-president of the Bankers Trust, and Richard Hu-
bert Ward had particularly counted on doing some busi-
ness with the young man. The girl appeared a few minutes
later and calmly helped herself to a rye and ginger ale.
"Who was that Eagle Scout?" she asked her host. "He
wanted to know if I'd ever had a Wassermann, the son of
a bitch. I didn't ask him. Dick, I think you have some very
unattractive friends. I mean I really do."
"Yes, but rich, Audrey," said Richard Hubert Ward.
At a few minutes past ten o'clock, as though a gong
had struck, the party collapsed. The second eager cou-
ple were still in the bedroom, but all the others simultane-
ously decided to leave, and did so together without invit-
ing the host to join them. Apparently they assumed that
Audrey and Richard wanted to be together, an assump-
tion that was only half right. In any event, Audrey and
Richard were now alone in the livingroom.
"Oh, I'll be so glad to get out of New York," said
"You going somewhere?"
"I sure am. Didn't you read in the papers? I got my
THE BIG LAUGH
name in the papers. I have a job in a summer stock com-
pany on the Cape. The East Sandwich Players."
"Does it pay well?"
"Does it pay well? Pays nothing. But we get room
and board and a chance to act in some very good plays.
The best kind of experience for somebody just starting
out. Ill have different parts in four, maybe five plays this
summer. Some of the company have been on Broadway.
But the great advantage in addition to the experience,
the managers go from one company to another, looking
for new actresses. "
"Where do you live?"
"On the Cape? In a boarding-house in Buzzards Bay
or Woods Hole, they aren't sure. Come up and see me.
You've never seen me in a play. I'm good."
"I didn't know you'd ever been in a play."
"Last season, I had a walk-on in Just for the Three of
Us. Terrible play, but at least I can say I was on Broad-
way. Twelve performances, not counting two weeks out
of town. Oh, I'm an actress, and I'm good. You could act,
"What makes you say that?"
"Oh — I don't know. You wouldn't like it if I told
"Go on, tell me."
"Well, I don't see you as anything else. I thought you
were like one of these Wall Street fellows, till tonight. But
when I saw you with them I knew you were different.
And you never reminded me of a writer, or an artist. You
must be something, so maybe you're an actor."
JOHN O HARA
"All right, 111 tell you. I think you're such a big phony
that you ought to be an actor."
"Oh, you do, do you?"
"You have the same kind of phoniness about you that
"When did you come to that conclusion?"
"I always thought so, but especially tonight. Playing
up to those stockbrokers, and you didn't know what you
were talking about. They saw through you, too, but they
were getting your free liquor."
"And you were in there humping like a donkey with
a guy you never saw before."
"Well, I'll never see him again, you can be sure of
"I don't care whether you see him or not."
"Bad enough asking me if I ever had a Wassermann,
but do you know what he did? Take a look at this." She
reached in her purse and held up some banknotes.
"Eighty-one dollars. He gave me all the money in his
pocket. Eighty-one dollars. He didn't even count it. I'm
no whore. But I'm going to keep it just the same."
"I'm glad you think so. I went with him because I
liked him, the son of a bitch, and all he thought was I was
a whore. Well, if that's what he thinks I'll keep his money.
God, if my parents ever thought I took money for going
to bed with a man, they'd positively die." She laughed.
"What's so funny?"
THE BIG LAUGH
"Maybe I ought to give you half, it's your apartment.
But try and get it."
"Call him up next week, 111 bet you could get some
"You know, 111 bet I could, too. Oh, hell want to see
me again. You should have heard him when I got un-
dressed. 'Apples of ivory/ He must have a very frigid wife
he's married to, that boy."
"Well, wouldn't that be better than going to the
Cape and working for nothing?"
"Certainly would not."
"If you liked him once you could like him again, and
his father's one of the richest men in Wall Street."
"You suggesting that I become his mistress?"
"No, but why don't you? It isn't as if you were in love
with somebody else. Unless you're in love with me."
"You? Anybody that would fall in love with you
would have to have bats in their belfry."
"Says you. I had plenty of girls in love with me, and
not only girls. The last school I went to, I was kicked out
on account of the school dentist's wife, and she was
thirty-five or -six years old. They're getting a divorce on
account of me — partly. I've had plenty of women in love
"Then all I can say is God help them."
"You were pretty close to it."
"No. I had fun with you, but that's a different story
than being in love with you. I nearly always have fun with
you, Dick, except when you take yourself too seriously.
Will you come up and see me this summer?"
JOHN O H AR A
"Maybe I will, I'm not sure."
"Come up and hang around for a while, maybe
they'd give you a job painting scenery, selling tickets. You
could have fun, and you're not doing anything better. I
can't figure you out, whether your parents have money or
what. But I'll bet you'd have a good time if you came up.
There are two other girls besides myself in the company,
and one of them you'd like. The other one's too serious,
but this one you'd like. Julie. Her father teaches at Yale."
"I don't know. There're plenty of girls around New
York, especially in the summer."
The conversation was interrupted by the appearance
of the couple from the bedroom, their arms around each
other's waist, and both somewhat groggy.
"He's plastered to the hat," said the girl.
"Lashed to the mast and plastered to the hat," said
the man. "You waiting to use the bridal suite? I can guar-
antee it's comfortable."
"Audrey knows. She tested it," said the girl.
"And now you've tested it, so you know too," said
"Everybody go home?" said the man. "The hell time
"Looks like fi' minutes of four," said the girl.
"Five minutes of four?" said the man. "God, I won't
get three hours' sleep."
"You had some sleep," said the girl. "Anyway, I don't
think that is five minutes of four. It's more like twenty
"Well, that's better. Then we can make a night of it."
THE BIG LAUGH
"Starting with you take me out and get me some
dinner," said the girl.
"Too hot to eat," said the man. "But 111 take you out
and buy you a bucketful of stingers. How would you like
"Ill have a stinger but I want something to eat, too.
Are you coming with us, Dick? Audrey?"
"No thanks. But before you go, tell your boy friend
to button his fly," said Audrey.
"My fly open? So it is. I wonder how that happened?
Come on, Jezebel."
They left, and as they closed the door Audrey stuck
out her tongue.
"Is that at him or at her?" said Richard.
"Him. I hate those bond salesmen. They make every-
thing dirty," she said. "Well, Dick, you coming up to the
"Ill let you know. Write down on a piece of paper
where I can reach you."
"The East Sandwich Players, that's all you have to
remember. And no kidding, you could have some fun. I
can't guarantee you a job, but if you just hang around a
while they'll give you something to do."
The bad cheques were a good enough reason for get-
ting out of New York, but Richard Hubert Ward was
influenced less by fear of the law than by a new, irresisti-
ble appeal to his vanity. He had never thought of it be-
fore, but Audrey had made him suspect that the stage
was where he belonged. All his years in suburban New
Jersey and prep schools and in his brief career in the
JOHN O HARA
night life of New York he had felt some pull toward an
occupation that no one in his family or among his friends
had been identified with. No one had ever suggested the
stage; he had never gone out for dramatics at school. But
someone who had been on the real stage — Audrey — had
put it to him so simply that he immediately recognized
the thing he wanted to do. It was so much the thing he
wanted to do that he was convinced there was nothing
else for him to do. He was without any awe of it, of get-
ting up before a lot of people, of memorizing lines; with-
out fear of awkwardness in moving about or not moving
about. He had never read a modern play, he had never
seen a play-without-music by his own choice. The great
names of the theater meant nothing to him except as cele-
brities in the night life and in the tabloids. And yet he
already had the feeling that he had found where he be-
And he was right.
He remained in Sturtevant's apartment until the day
before Sturtevant was to return, and then, without notify-
ing Audrey, he took the train to Buzzards Bay, found a
room, and bummed rides to East Sandwich and had a
look at the barn that called itself a theater. He was wear-
ing white ducks and scuffed saddle-straps and no one
noticed him particularly. He entered the barn theater
by the front door and seated himself in a rear row of camp
chairs. It was rather dark where he was sitting, and on the
small stage a group of men and women were obviously
rehearsing a play. A man in a crumpled linen suit and yel-
low foulard bow tie was addressing one of the women.
THE BIG LAUGH
". . . And the whole point of it, Mary, the whole point is
this is no accidental shooting. You really want to kill the
son of a bitch. He's thrown you over for your kid sister, so
you have two reasons for hating the bastard. He's given
you the air, and now he's going to run away with your sis-
ter, that you happen to be very fond of. Shall we try it
again, or is there something eating you?"
"No, the only thing is, 111 have a real gun in my hand,
"We're getting you one from the hardware store,"
said the director.
"Well, when Paul sees the gun, shouldn't he be
"No. He thinks you're bluffing. He's been sleeping
with you for three years, remember, and you've threat-
ened him before. First act, second scene."
"But not with a gun," insisted the actress Mary.
"He still thinks you're bluffing," said the director.
"I don't think I ought to let him see the gun," said
"Well, the author thinks you should, and I agree with
the author, so let's do it the way it was written."
"Only a suggestion," said Mary.
"Yeah, I know. All right, places please, everybody in
this scene. Paul, take it from your line, 1 never thought of
her that way.' "
" 1 never thought of her that way, that's your suspi-
cious mind,' " said Paul.
"Audrey! Where the hell are you? You're supposed
to be onstage with the tray so you can overhear that line.
JOHN O HARA
You testify later that you heard him accuse her of having
a suspicious mind. You have to be there right on cue."
"I'm sorry/' said Audrey. "I was waiting for Mary's
"No, no, no, no, no. Paul's line. Your cue was Mary's
"Oh, of course," said Audrey.
They tried the scene once again, and Richard Hu-
bert Ward found that he was mouthing all their lines,
knew precisely where each actor should be, and — happy
discovery — was completely and perfectly at home. In
spite of knowing nothing about the preceding events in
the play, knowing only what he could learn from this one
brief scene, he understood the play, which was not diffi-
cult, and, moreover, he was sure he could improve upon
it and on the director's presentation of it.
As Richard Hubert Ward was making these discov-
eries the director chanced to turn to speak to a young man
who was seated behind him, and in so doing noticed the
stranger. "You back there, who are you?"
"Me? Just a visitor," said Richard Hubert Ward.
"Well get the hell out," said the director.
"I'm not bothering anybody," said Richard.
"You're bothering me."
"No wonder," said Richard.
"What do you mean, no wonder?" said the director.
"Who are you, anyway?"
"Try and find out," said Richard. He got up and left
the theater, angry and disappointed that he had so
quickly botched his entrance into the only career that
THE BIG LAUGH
had ever interested him. He made a guess that the direc-
tor was a third-rater, professionally on a level with the
masters at the worst of the prep schools he had attended;
tacky, voluble, overauthoritative, mean, and afraid of
their own mediocrity. Richard hid in the apple orchard
until he saw the actors coming out of the barn, and when
he was satisfied that the director was not with them he
caught up with Audrey and some others.
"Dick! Was that you Ruskin was giving hell to?
When did you get here? Where you staying?" She cut off
her questions to introduce him to a very tall, very thin
young man, a pretty girl, and a middle-aged woman, none
of whom he had seen before. They acknowledged the intro-
ductions and promptly left.
"Not exactly the friendliest people I ever met," he
"Ruskin has everybody scared. They're all afraid
they'll be sent home before they get in the first play,"
"But you're not scared."
"Oh, that's how it is? Who the hell is this Ruskin?
He must be King Shit around here."
"Shows how much you know. He's a very successful
Broadway director. Directed some of the most famous hits
"Then what's he doing in a dump like this?"
"This isn't a dump. A lot of famous playwrights try
out their new plays here because Martin Ruskin really
knows the theater. And he's the owner here."
JOHN O HARA
"You seem to ve changed your mind about the place.
You didn't make it sound so important the last time I saw
"I didn't change my mind one bit," she said. "Where
you staying, or are you staying?"
"I got a room. Where are you staying? With Rus-
"No, but what if I was?"
"Listen, you got me to come up here."
"What if I did? You didn't have to pick a fight with
the manager and director the first time you show up . . .
I have to leave you."
"You don't want Ruskin to see me talking to you."
"I certainly don't."
"You're as afraid of him as the others."
"I'm not afraid of him. I like him. And he likes me."
"Well, then that's that."
"You could have saved yourself the trip if you'd
have bothered to write me a note. Coming here without
any advance notice."
"Was that girl you just introduced me to, was that
the one you said I'd like?"
"No. You wouldn't like any of the girls here."
"Hell's bells, I like any girl as long as she's pretty and
can be laid. But you want me to get out of here, is that
"Yes, before you spoil everything for me."
"I'm not going to spoil anything for you, but you got
me up here and now I think I'll stick around a while."
"Please go away. I'll meet you late tonight if you'll
THE BIG LAUGH
promise to go away tomorrow. I'll pay your fare back to
"No use trying to fool me, Dick. I found out some
more about you. That boy that gave me the eighty-one
dollars? I saw him again and he told me all about you."
"He doesn't know all about me."
"He knows enough. Have you got an uncle that's
some kind of a builder?"
"What if I have?"
Audrey nodded. "Your own uncle told Jack not to
have anything to do with you. Your own uncle."
"Well, if Jack Dunbar's going around spreading sto-
ries about me I'm glad I know one about him. I better go
back to New York tomorrow, to protect my reputation. I
can't have Jack Dunbar going around — "
"I shouldn't have told you that."
"Listen, thanks for telling me."
"No, now wait a minute, Dick. You don't want to
ruin things for everybody."
"Don't I? When the vice-president of the Bankers
Trust Company's son is spreading stories about me? He
was supposed to be a friend of mine. If he wasn't, why
did he come to my party? I have plenty of witnesses that
he was there. And what did he give you eighty bucks
"There's Ruskin. See me tonight. I'm staying at Mrs.
Amos Pierce's, West Falmouth. Okay?"
JOHN O HARA
'One o'clock. Ill meet you on the front porch at
She ran from him, and he watched her get in a green
Packard roadster with Ruskin. As they passed the spot
where he was standing she let her hand fall outside the
door of the car and waved it.
She was in Mrs. Pierce's porch swing when he arrived
a few minutes before one. "I don't know what I came here
for," he said.
"Yes you do," she said. She put her arms around his
neck and kissed him.
"Oh, cut it out, Audrey. I didn't come here for that,
and you're faking anyway. Wasn't Ruskin enough for
"Then what did you come here for?"
"I told you I don't know, but not to have you faking
hot pants. I want to finish that conversation this after-
noon. Why shouldn't I go back to New York? That sancti-
monious son of a bitch, I'm going to make him pay for
what he said about me."
"You mean money?"
"Well, why not money? He drank my liquor and that
cost me money. Yes, money."
"You mean you'd commit blackmail? You'll end up
in jail, the first thing you know."
"Don't be so sure. And what if I did? My uncle'd like
that if it got in the papers. I'd like to fix him too. I always
did hate that son of a bitch."
"You're only twenty years of age, Dick. That'd be a
THE BIG LAUGH
terrible thing to live down. That'd be a black mark for
the rest of your life."
"What do you care if I have a black mark the rest of
my life? Protecting Jack Dunbar."
"I didn't say I was in love with you, ever, but I like
you enough so I wouldn't want to see you disgrace your-
self for life. Honestly I do. It isn't only protecting Jack
Dunbar. I like you better than I like Jack. Honestly. He
shouldn't have told me those things about you."
"What did he tell you?"
"Oh — things your uncle told him. I didn't believe
half of them, or else how did you get into other schools?
Your uncle said he got you in three schools and you were
kicked out of all of them."
"I was shipped home from two. The first one they
asked me to withdraw. Did he say what I was kicked out
"Is that all he said?"
"That's all Jack told me. Morals. I knew what one
was because you told me. The doctor's wife."
"Dentist's wife. The doctor's wife was a fat old cluck,
I wouldn't have touched her with a ten-foot pole."
"Put your arms around me. I don't want to fight with
you. We don't have to do anything. Just put your arms
She took one of his arms and drew it around her
waist. "That's better," she said. "Dick?"
JOHN O HARA
"Are you a fairy?"
"The hell I am. You know better than that. Why did
you ask me that?"
"Isn't that what they kicked you out of one of the
"God damn it, he did tell you more, didn't he?"
"He said it was immorality with another boy."
"He ought to get the story straight if he's going to
tell it around. It was one boy that was a fairy and they
caught him with me and two other boys, but he was the
fairy, not us. They were just waiting to catch him, but we
were all sent home. They could have sent the whole
school home, practically. Cuban boy. We hated him. We
used to send for Ricco instead of a girl. We all made jokes
about him all the time, but there were only three of us
sent home. Us and Ricco. It's a wonder they didn't get
wise to him before that. Maybe they didn't want to be-
cause his family were so rich."
"What else did you do?"
"No, I mean besides school."
"Did my uncle tell Dunbar about other stuff?"
"Oh, he gave your life history."
"Was there an automobile accident mixed up in it?"
"Then I guess he told him about that. When I was
fourteen I swiped my uncle's car. He had a Wills Ste.
Claire, and I took it one day while he was playing golf.
I killed somebody."
THE BIG LAUGH
"You killed somebody? How?"
"I drove over to South Orange to a girl's house to
take her for a ride, but she wasn't in. So I was on my
way back, and I could have made it in plenty of time so
my uncle wouldn't have known I'd taken the car. But an
old woman crossing the street in East Orange . . .
There was a trolley car stopped and she walked in front
of it and right in front of my uncle's car. I smacked her,
she went up in the air and down on the street. I kept on
going, but somebody took the license number and I was
arrested that night. It was the old woman's fault, but I
didn't have a license and I didn't stop. They sued my
uncle and he had to pay them around five thousand dol-
lars, even if it was the old woman's fault. Five thousand
dollars. He won that much when Dempsey beat Willard,
but you'd think it was his last penny. And the kids
at home — I was practically ostracized. Never allowed to
have a car and I wasn't allowed to apply for a license till
last year. What else do you want to know? There's plenty
more, once I get wound up."
"Yes. What do you live on? Where do you get
"Well, you have to have some money. To pay your
rent. To eat with. To come up here cost you some
"The man with the three balls."
"I hocked some things, but now I haven't much left
to hock. I was hoping I could get a job as an actor."
JOHN O HARA
"I told you they don't pay us anything. Why don't
you try to get a job as a waiter or a bellboy, at one of
the hotels? That would tide you over for the summer/'
"I wouldn't know how to be a waiter, and I wouldn't
like it. I might as well try to be an actor. I know I'd like
"Yes, but what are you going to live on?"
"They feed you at your theater, don't they?"
"Room and board, but Ruskin isn't going to give
you a job, and he has the say."
"I don't know. I had experience with men like Ruskin.
Teachers. I could always get around them."
"Not Ruskin. He's a very smart Jew, too smart for you,
"If he's really smart, he'll give me a job."
"Why should he?" she said. "He doesn't even like you."
"I know, but I have something, and if he's smart hell
see it. That is, if he's smart. And if he's not smart, I can
outsmart him. Ill bet you he gives me a job."
"You're the most conceited bastard I ever heard."
"I hope Ruskin thinks so. I'm counting on it. I had a
lot of experience with men like Ruskin."
"You don't know the first thing about him."
"You're wrong there. He doesn't know anything
about me, but I know a lot about him. I watched him for
two hours yesterday afternoon, and he reminded me of
two teachers I used to have. This time tomorrow 111 have
a job with Ruskin."
"Not a chance. Not a prayer."
After a while he left her, and in the morning, toward
THE BIG LAUGH
noon, he went to the theater and sat in Ruskin's car.
When Ruskin appeared and saw him in the car Richard
Hubert Ward spoke first. "Do you remember me?"
"You're the fresh punk from yesterday. What the hell
do you think you're doing in my car? Get out, make your-
"How about taking me to lunch and we can talk it
"Talk what over?"
"Listen, Ruskin, I didn't come all the way from New
York for nothing."
"You did as far as I'm concerned. Get outa my car."
"Make me get out — and make a horse's ass of yourself
trying. In front of everybody. A lot of people are watch-
ing us, Ruskin. You don't want to look like a horse's ass in
front of them."
Ruskin recognized simple truths. He got in the car,
barely controlling his rage, and put the car in motion.
"I'd like to know what you think you're doing? Who are
"I don't want to talk to you till you calm down. Do
you want me to drive?"
"No. Yes. I'll move over and you take the wheel."
"Oh, come on, Ruskin. You want me to get out and
youll drive away? Come on, Ruskin."
"Well, I won't get out. You'd steal my car. I think
you're a crazy man."
"You're not the first one that said that. But I'm harm-
JOHN O HARA
"What the hell do you want? Speak your piece and
stop bothering me."
"Let's ride around a while till you calm down."
"I'm stopping right now," said Ruskin. He switched
off the engine and put the key in his pocket.
"Suit yourself. Want a cigarette?"
"I have my own cigarettes. Just tell me what this is
"It's a frame-up," said Richard Hubert Ward.
"A frame-up? What are you talking about?"
"If a cop came along now, I'm twenty years old, and
you're a lot older than that. If I wanted to tell the cop
a nasty story, you could get in a lot of trouble. You
shouldn't have stopped the car on a country road. You
should have done what I asked you — take me to lunch.
But there goes a car with two people in it. What do
they think a man your age is parked with a young guy
like me for? Here comes another car. I advise you to get
going, Ruskin. We'll go somewhere and have lunch."
"You wouldn't get anywhere with that. That's one
thing I haven't got a reputation for. Quite the opposite,
in fact. So you've outsmarted yourself."
"Have I? A lot of people saw me waiting in your car,
and then saw me driving away with you at the wheel.
What is your reputation for? Girls? They'd say you were
covering up. And maybe you are, Ruskin. That's what I
"God, I never met a son of a bitch like you. I swear
to Christ you're the worst son of a bitch I ever met in my
THE BIG LAUGH
whole life. You're what crawls out from under stones.
What do you want? Money?"
"How much would you give me?"
"Not a God damn cent. I'd go to prison before I paid
you any money."
"No you wouldn't."
"There you're wrong. I would. Before I gave you money
I'd go to prison. Try me. But I got an idea you don't want
money. You want something else besides money. What is
"I want a job in your theater."
"Well, you not only don't get it, but I'll fix it so you
never get a job in any theater, anywhere."
"Is that final?"
"You bet it's final."
"Without knowing what I'm going to do next?"
"I don't care what you do. Just get out of my car. And
never show your face around here again."
"All right. I'll get out of your car." Richard Hubert
Ward peacefully turned the door-handle and stepped down
to the roadside. "Go ahead, Ruskin. I'm not going to do
anything to you. You can go. Don't be afraid."
"Afraid? Afraid of what?"
"Oh, well, that's another story." Ward smiled. "Go on,
Ruskin. What are you waiting for? I haven't got a gun on
me. I'm harmless."
Ruskin put the car in gear and moved the car forward
a few yards, then stopped.
"Keep going," said Ward, over the noise of the engine.
Ruskin again put the car in gear and now he con-
JOHN O H AR A
tinued shifting into third speed, which took him out of
sight of Ward. Ward sat on a fence and lit a cigarette.
In less than five minutes Ruskin returned. "Get in,"
Ward casually tossed his cigarette in the ditch and
lazily got in the car. "You changed your mind," he said.
"What's your name?" said Ruskin.
"You giving me a job?"
"I'm giving you nothing."
"Then I'm not giving you my name."
"Why do you want a job in my theater? You're not
"No information till you say you'll give me a job."
"You took a big chance. The police around here know
me. I've been coming here every summer."
"You're taking a big chance right now, Ruskin."
"How am I? I don't happen to think so."
"You thought it all over, and you decided you were
"But you had to think it over first, didn't you? Why
did you come back?"
"Frankly, to get another look at the worst son of a
bitch I ever met. To see if you were for real."
"I'm for real. And now I'm sore. I wasn't sore before.
But now I am, and you look out."
"You're a real specimen, all right."
"So are you, Ruskin, or you wouldn't be here. Just a
little bit afraid. And why are you afraid? Because I
guessed you right, didn't I?"
THE BIG LAUGH
"Yes I did, and you know I did. And I know it now. I
was only guessing before, but not any more. Do I get the
"What job? What could you do? You're not an actor."
"Ill be an actor."
"There's nothing for you."
"There's plenty for me. I don't mind working at the
other stuff. But I won't take the job unless you guarantee
I get on the stage sometime."
"You won't take the job? I haven't offered you a job."
"Cut the shit. We're past that."
"Do you know there's no pay to it?"
"To me there is. Room and board, and I want ten
bucks a week spending money."
"And what do I get out of it?"
"I don't get it. If I were what you think I am, I'd want
something out of it. But if I'm not what you think I am,
why should I give you a job?"
"Because I'm me, Ruskin, and you know I've got
something. I know what you are. You're double-gaited. I
detected that watching you yesterday. Showing Mary how
to act. But me, I'm an actor. I'm going to be a big actor,
and you're the first one to know it except me."
"I don't think you'll ever be an actor, if you live to
be a hundred. But a stage personality — I'll give you that
much. Are you hungry?"
"Yes, I am."
JOHN O HARA
"Well, we'll turn around again and I'll buy you some
lunch. What's your name?"
"My name? Hubert Ward."
"The hell it is. Hubert?"
"Well, it's Richard Hubert, but I decided Hubert
was better than Richard."
"All right, Hubert. Room and board."
"And ten bucks a week."
"No. No money. I'll give you a job because maybe you
do have something, but the money would be blackmail
and I won't pay it."
"The worst son of a bitch I ever met in my whole life.
But what the hell? In this business. What about your peo-
ple? Where do you come from and all that?"
"I have no people."
"They kick you out?"
"But they were what they call nice people? Conserva-
tive suburbanites? And you're the black sheep of the fam-
ily. What did you do?"
"Don't ask too damn many questions. I don't want
to be reminded of them."
"How did you know about me? Oh, sure — Audrey.
Yeah, you're true to type, all right. But the personalities
make the money while a lot of good actors are starving.
Hubert Ward. The goniff. The schlemiel. The schmuck.
Who's your favorite actor, Hubert?"
"I don't know. Al Jolson, I guess."
"Yep. You wouldn't even say George Arliss." Ruskin
THE BIG LAUGH
shook his head, and looked at the specimen at his right.
If Martin Ruskin had been a little more evil than he
was or a better man than he was, his interest in this new
Hubert Ward might have become more intense, either on
the side of corruption or of regeneration. But Ruskin was
a reasonably competent hack director, a failure as a writer
but an experienced and knowledgeable hand at getting
the most out of the second-rate plays that came his way.
He made a good living out of the theater, with at least one
new play a season and not infrequently he had had two
plays running concurrently. He had on several occasions
got himself credited as co-author of plays he directed, and
this maneuver was of considerable financial benefit to him
over the years through stock company and amateur pro-
ductions far removed from Broadway. He had got into
the theater as a press agent — more accurately as a boy-of-
all-work for an established press agent. He was then nine-
teen years old and living with his family in The Bronx.
His father was dead, and he and his mother were being
supported by an older brother, George, who was on the
road for a yard-goods firm and doing well. George wanted
Martin to go to college and study law — which was what
George had wanted to do — but Martin's best marks in
high school had been in English and his only prizes had
been for declaiming Spartacus and the other classic ora-
torical exercises. George thought Martin would make a
good trial lawyer; Martin thought Martin would make a
good actor, in parts that did not demand a personable
leading man. He was not a comely youth, and he knew it.
Through family connections he got the office boy job in
JOHN O H AR A
the press agent's office, and almost immediately he aban-
doned the idea of becoming an actor and during his
spare time he read and wrote plays, and more or less in
line of duty he spent as much time as possible watching
rehearsals. His presence was tolerated, and he was quick
to learn, and at twenty-one he produced his first play.
It was a just barely legal theft of Clarence, written by
a young man recently out of the Baker English 47 Work-
shop at Harvard. The young man was the same age as Mar-
tin, but because he had seen Martin behind a desk in a
Broadway manager's office he assumed that Martin was
someone of some importance. Martin had grown a mous-
tache to make himself look older, and Ralph Harding
was exactly what he had been looking for: someone with
a play and some money. Martin knew that the play,
Dickie Takes a Walk, had been rejected and was waiting
for the convenience of the playreader to send it back to
the author. Martin saved her the trouble. On Ralph
Harding's next visit to the office Martin jumped up and
greeted the anxious playwright. "Mr. Harding, I been hop-
ing you'd come in today. I want to have a talk with you,"
he said. He took Harding's arm and steered him out of the
office to a Childs restaurant. They ordered pancakes and
coffee, and Martin made his first speech as a producer.
Without ever stating his own position in the office
of the producing firm he told Harding he believed in
the play, that it was not the kind of play that should be
put on by a big firm. It needed personal attention. He be-
lieved it could be put on for ten or at the most fifteen thou-
sand dollars, and he thought enough of the play to make it
THE BIG LAUGH
his initial venture as a producer. If Harding could raise
ten thousand, he would raise the rest. He meant every
word he said, he said, and all he asked of Harding was
that he keep the transaction a secret until he resigned his
job with the producing firm. A good comedy was a real
moneymaker — look at Lightnin. And he had hopes that
this would be the beginning of a real, lasting partnership.
The play was put on, ran just under three weeks, and
Martin Ruskin came out about two thousand dollars
ahead. The notices were not entirely bad, and Martin, in
addition to the quiet profit in cash, had acquired a new
friend. He and Ralph Harding had been through a blood
bath together. Ralph at Martin's urging decided to retire
to Dark Harbor, Maine, to get to work on his new play, a
serious drama something like Troilus and Cressida but
not really Troilus and Cressida. It would be up-to-date —
"modren," Martin then pronounced it — and it would give
Ralph the opportunity to express himself about women.
Ralph did not like women, and Martin had not had any
success with them either. Ralph had had what might be
called some success with men, and Martin was surprised
but not shocked to discover that Ralph had become very
fond of him in that way. On the closing night of Dickie
Takes a Walk Ralph abandoned all restraint and made
love to his new friend. Later he begged Martin to forgive
him, promised it would never happen again, and went off
to Dark Harbor to write his drama. Martin did not mind.
He was only confused by what he considered a kind of
compliment. In any event he was now really in the
theater; he had had his name in the programs as producer,
JOHN O HARA
he had made a nice piece of change, and he had been se-
duced by a playwright who was also a society boy. The
next move was to get a woman, and that turned out to be
as easy as opening his office door in the morning.
The play brokers now began to send him the works of
the new and the passe and the firmly second- and third-
rate authors. He was well aware that the brokers offered
him only junk that had been rejected elsewhere, but so
long as he did not stand to lose his own money he was
willing to produce plays that would, if nothing else, get
his name more firmly established. He in turn began to
make it a condition of producing plays that he could func-
tion as co-author on plays he thought had some pos-
sibilities. Here he struck a snag; the brokers demanded a
commission, which he refused to pay. For a time the bro-
kers sent him no plays, but he won out against them be-
cause it was better for them to take ten percent of their
clients' royalties than no percent of nothing from their
clients' unproduced plays. In a very short time he was
well hated on Broadway, and thus he advanced to a sec-
ond phase of his theatrical career: he was known as Mar-
tin Ruskin, that son of a bitch, although he was only
twenty-five years old. (In interviews he added five years
to his age, and he affected older men's dress and was care-
less about shaving his beard. There were those who be-
lieved he was lying when he said he was only thirty. )
He lived at a Broadway hotel, two blocks away from
his office. The women who went to his room came away
with stories that contributed to his legend, some true,
some at least half true. At twenty he had never had
THE BIG LAUGH
a woman; at twenty-five he had a surfeit of them, of those
wanting jobs, and then of those who were in part wanting
jobs but were also investigating the legend. He wanted no
woman for very long, but out of perversity a few women
convinced themselves that they were in love with him.
The extreme exhibitionists among them outranked him
on Broadway; there were two great beauties and one ex-
cellent actress who would not for a moment consider ap-
pearing in one of his plays, but who made public fools of
themselves over him. They had paid no attention to him
while the legend was being created, and they recovered
quickly when he failed to achieve any form of first-rate
prominence. Martin had become a small name at twenty-
one, a promising newcomer at twenty-three, and at twenty-
five he was forever, irrevocably marked as deficient in supe-
rior talent and great good luck.
He began to suspect his standing when he announced
a play to open on a night in October and the Theatre Guild
subsequently announced a play to open on the same night.
He knew immediately that he would not get reviews from
the first-string critics, and he thereupon changed his date.
It was not so much that he was being honest with himself
as that he was having honesty forced upon him by the
gesture of the Theatre Guild. The Guild people obviously
had seen his earlier announcement and in effect had as-
signed his play to the second-string critics. They were pro-
fessionals at the Guild, and theirs was a professional judg-
ment. "Due to scenic difficulties, the opening of the new
Martin Ruskin . . ." was his face-saving statement to
the press. It deceived almost no one, and he became an
JOHN O H AR A
ideal man to operate a summer theater. There he could
bully authors, direct when he wanted to, make a little
money, live cheaply, sleep with whomever he chose, and
make like a king. In his way he loved the theater, but
above all he loved his summer theater.
The Martin Ruskin East Sandwich Playhouse, per-
sonal supervision of Martin Ruskin, was in its third con-
secutive summer when Hubert Ward joined the East
Sandwich Players. The enterprise was therefore a going
concern, not subject to the difficulties and exigencies of a
summer theater that was just starting out. It had its
patrons and patronesses, its mailing list, its comforta-
ble arrangements with the tradespeople and the summer
hotels in the neighborhood, and mutually beneficial under-
standings with various organizations that would buy tick-
ets in quantity. Martin Ruskin lived in a saltbox that
he rented furnished, and ate most of his meals at the
Paul Revere Inn, where he had a due-bill. He got his gas
and oil free, along with similar perquisites that were ex-
changed for curtain advertising. The first summer had
been the hard one, but he had convinced the natives that
his Playhouse was an attraction and that his Players were
well behaved or at least kept their misbehavior in the com-
pany. The Yankees took to Martin, up to a point, and in
his second and third summers his principal problem was
in finding maid-bits and small walk-ons for stagestruck
daughters and nieces. Martin was not summer-people;
like the Yankees he was out to make a dollar off the sum-
mer people, and this fact enhanced his relations with the
THE BIG LAUGH
natives. They were out to make a small dollar off him, but
they found him pretty sharp, pronounced shap.
Because the Playhouse was on its way to becoming an
institution, Martin Ruskin could permit himself the luxury
of devoting most of his time to the plays and players, with
the non-creative details taken care of by Sylvia Stone, who
was his New York secretary in the winter. Sylvia was even
shapper than Ruskin, a stout, jolly woman who could
laugh a merchant into lending her some stage props that
he knew would never be returned. It was up to Sylvia to
find a bed for Hubert Ward to sleep in.
"I don't understand you taking on this Ward Hubert,"
she said to Martin Ruskin. "What's he got to offer?"
"I don't understand it either."
"You got reasons for everything, Marty. This is Sylvia
you're talking to."
"Maybe he's a kind of another version of me. I don't
mean with the looks."
"No, I don't see any resemblance in any manner,
shape or form. Physically, I'm speaking."
"There isn't any. But he put me in mind of Richard
Barthelmess. He has no resemblance to him, either, but
they're both clean-cut, you know what I mean?"
"The all-American boy."
"The all-American goy, did you say? Anyway, Syl,
I'm putting him on."
"The bottom of the ladder. One of the Martin Ruskin
"I'll give him the toilets to clean."
JOHN O HARA
"Suit yourself. But I don't want him to quit."
"Then I won't give him the toilets."
"No, I don't think you better. You don't like him?"
"Such a stuck-up! He irritates me beyond words. He
sat on my desk and informed me he wanted a room by
himself, not with anybody, and I told him that was im-
possible. Impossible. And then he said did he have to eat
with the others and I told him if he wanted to eat he did.
The next thing was he tried to put the touch on me for
twenty dollars, so that was so ridiculous I humored him.
I said when would I get it back, and he gave me some
bushwah about a letter from his guardian. He said he had
"You didn't let him have any money."
"That you can be positive I didn't. Lending money to
actors is the quick way to the poorhouse, I know from ex-
perience. Then he asked me did I have a car, and with my
car sitting outside the office I couldn't say I didn't. Why?
He said he wanted to make sure who had cars in the com-
pany, in case he wanted the loan of one. He said your car
was too conspicuous. For what, I said. Was he planning
to hold up the bank? No, he said, not hold up any bank.
Oh, in five minutes' time he tried everything, and ended
up walking away with my pack of cigarettes I had lying
on my desk. We had one like him the first summer."
"No, we never had one like him. This one is going
places, Syl. Don't you honestly think so?"
She paused to reflect. "It goes against the grain, but
I guess I have to admit it. Personal magnetism is one word
for it. It's too bad it has to be wasted on people like that."
THE BIG LAUGH
"If you were an agent would you sign him?"
"Think I would," she said.
"Then be an agent. He wouldn't know the difference.
You can get a copy of one of those contracts. Sign him."
"Marty, I wouldn't want him around me that much.
He's the kind of a man that I'd be a mess before I
was through humiliating myself. Women like me have to
steer clear of that type man or suffer the consequences.
One man like that could take all the fun out of life, and for
what? A cheap thrill, only not so cheap. What would I be
if I wasn't good-natured, Marty?"
"You're afraid of this fellow?"
"I don't have the looks to get another man in a hurry.
Yes, I'd be afraid of him if I gave in. I wish he never came
here. That's my personal reaction, you understand. As far
as the Playhouse is concerned, you think you made a dis-
covery so that's okay by me, Marty. You're thinking
of tying him up some way?"
"If my hunch is correct. I don't say hell ever be an
actor. That I doubt. But I'll see if he can learn the basic
elements, and maybe I'll find a play that he can play him-
self. That's as good as money in the bank."
"As long as that's what you can tell yourself, Marty."
"That — and some day I'll be able to say I discovered
"He'll deny it. Just don't you get injured."
"Marty, there's some topics it isn't my place to dis-
cuss, but give me credit for having two eyes. I know you
five years, Marty."
JOHN O H AR A
"Yeah. Well, find him a bed, and don't lend him any
"It won't be my bed, and it won't be my money, that
you can be certain."
"By the way, his name is Hubert Ward. You had it
Never again would Hubert Ward work so hard for so
little return, never again would ^ve or six years' difference
in ages carry any weight, and not again for many years
would any man — or woman — be obeyed by him as Martin
Ruskin was obeyed that summer. This was brought about
by a combination of circumstances: Ruskin, busy with
rehearsals of the plays on his schedule, had no time to
waste on Hubert Ward and in his preoccupation he acci-
dentally gave the appearance of aloofness; Sylvia Stone,
in self-protection, learned to despise the newcomer and
gave him the heaviest and least interesting chores; and
Hubert Ward, once he had been made a member of the
company, began to discover that there was more to acting
than memorizing lines and speaking them aloud. And
there were two other circumstances that made him want
to remain at the Playhouse: he was broke, and through
Audrey he learned that Phil Sturtevant had put the rent
cheque in the hands of a lawyer. Hubert guessed that no
one would look for him at a summer theater, and the
Playhouse seemed a safe place until after Labor Day.
Hubert Ward was given two small acting parts: in
one he played a collegiate type, complete with ukulele;
in the other he played a chauffeur, in ill-fitting livery and
THE BIG LAUGH
oversize puttees. As the chauffeur he had only to say: "The
limousine is waiting, Madam/' but as the college boy he
had several wisecracking lines. He made the most of them.
He very nearly made too much of them, and antagonized
the aging matinee idol who was the visiting star of the
play. "Martin, those are throw-away lines," said the star.
"But our friend here isn't reading them that way."
"Don't worry about it, Phil. When we have an audi-
ence they won't be listening to anybody else but you,"
But the opening-night audience laughed at the lines
and spoiled the star's entrance. The lines were therefore
toned down in succeeding performances. Nevertheless
Hubert Ward continued to be noticed by the audience.
The star had once offended Hildegarde Finney, a woman
in her early forties who was a permanent member of the
Players, and she taught Hubert his first lesson in scene-
stealing. "When Phil comes on, you're sitting on the porch
step, right? Well, when he crosses, you start tying your
shoe. But don't let him catch you at it."
Martin Ruskin caught on immediately, and after that
night's performance he summoned Hubert to his office.
"Who gave you that business of tying your shoe in the first
act? You didn't think that up yourself."
"My shoelace was untied and I was afraid I'd trip
making my exit."
"Twenty-four-carat horseshit. I know who tipped you
off — Finney. Well, tomorrow night, no business with the
shoelace, see? I don't pay a star big money to have funny
tricks played on him. The people come to see Philip W.
JOHN O HARA
Carstairs, that's what they pay their good money for. You
got that clear?"
"All right. But if he's that big a star why was he so
worried about my four lines?"
"You'll find out. You'll be worse than he is if you ever
get anywhere. And I'll tell you something for your own
good. Philip W. Carstairs could have made a real horse's
ass out of you if he'd wanted to. You just weren't worth
"How could he? I want to know these things."
"All right. Last night, when your funny lines were still
in the play. He could have come on and before he makes
his opening speech he could have stopped dead in front
of you and stared at you and then slowly, slowly walked
away from you, still staring at you. The people would have
laughed at you the way he intended them to, and you'd
have had to make your exit with your tail between your
legs and no exit line. He could have destroyed you. Don't
fuck around with old-timers like Philip W. Carstairs, if
you know what's good for you. He could do more with his
left eyebrow than you'll ever be able to do with both
hands and both feet and lines written by George Bernard
Shaw. The rest of the time he's here you do yourself
a favor. Just study the way he walks, onstage. Every step
is thought out. Every step. Watch the way that man puts
his left hand in his coat pocket when somebody else starts
a speech. Then just as the speech is ending he starts tak-
ing his hand out of the pocket. You think that's accidental?
Listen, fellow, I don't only pay him to come here and draw
the crowd. I study him like going to school, every re-
THE BIG LAUGH
hearsal, every performance. And you think you can crab a
scene for him. Huh! Are you screwing Hildegarde? Or is
she just getting even with Phil?"
"Her? I'm not that hard up."
"You're missing something, but I guess you never laid ^
a real woman."
"That's all you know. I was kicked out of school for
laying a woman thirty-five. She got divorced on account
of me, partly."
"Save it for some other time. While you're here, I got
something else I want to talk to you. Lay off the town
girls. I got a big investment here, a lot of good will with
the natives. Now don't give me any of your lies, I don't
have the time to listen. Just lay off, or out you go. George
Shackleton happens to be one of the Selectmen, and one
word from him and we don't come back here next sum-
mer. If you want to get laid, Audrey or Hildegarde, but
Shackle ton's daughter is out of bounds for you."
"She's waiting outside."
"Why do you think I'm warning you?"
"Tell her anything. Tell her you have a clap. Or I'll
"I never had a clap."
"Then you don't want me to tell everybody you have.
You wouldn't even get Hildegarde if I passed that around.
I don't care how you get out of it, but you get out of it."
"I didn't go after her, she came after me."
"Aren't you used to that by this time? I'll get you out
of this tonight."
JOHN O HARA
"I'll tell the kid her old man's getting wise."
"All right. She's afraid of her old man."
"So am I. Did you ever see him? Built like Zybysko.
If he ever got a hold of you he could break your spine.
You stay away from these Yankee girls, and the Portu-
guese, too. Their fathers carry fishing knives, or you'll end
up married to one of them."
"I don't want any trouble with them."
Ruskin went out and came back a few minutes later.
"As soon as I mentioned her old man she ran."
"Thank you," said Hubert Ward.
Ruskin was astonished. "You getting polite?"
"Oh, not only for getting rid of her."
"I don't know how to say it. You know, working here,
acting. This is the first time in my life I ever had a good
time. I guess I ought to apologize for the way I acted that
day in the car."
"Well, for Christ's sake."
"I'm not a bad fellow, Mr. Ruskin. I didn't mean to
be, or want to be. I just always got into scrapes all my life,
and people looked down on me. My father committed
suicide when I was a kid."
"I'm not sure. Something about money."
"Are you kidding me?"
"No, it's true. He shot himself."
"I don't mean about your old man. But this politeness
and all, all of a sudden."
THE BIG LAUGH
"See? People always get suspicious of me. There's
something about me. Every time I went to a new school
some older boy or some teacher'd start giving me hell be-
fore I ever did anything. Before I had a chance to. A fel-
low pushed me in the lake with all my clothes on the sec-
ond day I was at one school. He said he just didn't like my
"You could of drowned."
"No, I'm a good swimmer. It wasn't that. It was hav-
ing somebody hate me that never saw me before."
"Yeah, I can understand that. I had that experience
more than once, myself. On account of my religion."
"Well, I don't know about that, but the last couple of
days I suddenly realized I began to feel like a new human
being. I never knew any actors before. They're funny
people, all right, but I like them just the same. I don't
"You feel at home with them?"
"I guess that's it. Not exactly, but sort of. Yes, I guess
so. I'm getting to be more at home with them. They all
gossip about each other and they're always complaining
about something, but I guess that's it. I never felt at home
with people before, and I do with them. They're kinder
than most people. Two or three of them were sore as hell
because Mr. Carstairs took away my lines, and nothing
like that ever happened to me before, people sticking up
for me. It was always just the opposite."
"You're a funny kid, all right," said Ruskin.
"Kid? I'm almost twenty-one."
"When is your twenty-first birthday?"
JOHN O HARA
"The end of August. The thirtieth. Why?"
"You'll be twenty-one then, huh?"
"Yep. All the fellows I grew up with, when they were
twenty-one their families gave them a car, or a trip to
Europe. I won't even get a postcard from my sister. They
don't know where I am, and I don't want them to know.
Some day the bastards will wish — oh, well, what the hell."
Ruskin reached in his pocket. "Here, take this. I
know you're on your ass. Consider it a birthday present,
your twenty-first birthday."
"Ten bucks? Thanks, but I wasn't giving you a hard-
luck story, Mr. Ruskin. Are you sure you want me to have
"Sure I'm sure."
"Well, thank you very much. Ill take it if you really
"It'll keep you from stealing butts from Sylvia Stone.
Now I got a lot of work to do. Rehearsals at ten-thirty."
"Goodnight, Mr. Ruskin. And thanks." Hubert Ward,
a happy young man, went out.
"The poor son of a bitch," muttered Martin Ruskin.
"I should be so poor."
It was the first and last happy summer in the life of
Hubert Ward. The Playhouse and the work there were
like a boarding school where the tasks were tasks, but of
the kind he liked to do; and the recreation was of a more
mature character than at any boarding school but there
was a simple enjoyment of it because he convinced him-
self that he had earned it. At the Playhouse, instead of the
algebra and plane geometry that he was pretty good at,
THE BIG LAUGH
he took tickets, lined up the camp chairs, drove the old
Ford station wagon — and rehearsed his small roles. For
recreation there were Audrey and Hildegarde and the
unsuccessful pursuit of Julie. And always there was a feel-
ing of safety, of security; he had enough to eat, a place to
sleep, and he tried not to think too much of the summer's
end and the serious problems that awaited his return to
New York. He did not quite expect that the police would
be at Grand Central when he got off the train, but he was
worried about Sturtevant's lawyer and that bad cheque,
and only somewhat less worried about the bad cheque to
the speakeasy owner. Sturtevant's lawyer signified the
police; speakeasy owners sometimes had people beaten
up. Late in August Hubert Ward in a moment of despera-
tion thought of writing a cheque for $200 and cashing
it on the Cape. Then he thought of writing four $50
cheques, which would be much easier to cash. Then he
thought of simply stealing the box-office receipts on the
Labor Day weekend. And then he discarded all these
plans because none of them made any sense. His future
was in show business, as he had begun to call it, and his
immediate future depended entirely on Martin Ruskin.
Hubert put his brains to work on the problem of
Martin Ruskin — and he was a problem. He was sure that
Ruskin was attracted to him, and that if he gave him the
opportunity, Ruskin would confirm his suspicions of him.
During the few times when they were alone together
Hubert saw a different Ruskin from the public one.
Ruskin was not a Ricco, the Cuban boy at St. Bartholo-
mew's. Ricco was indiscriminate, promiscuous; Ruskin
JOHN O HARA
was attracted to him, more the way girls were attracted
to him. But the problem of Ruskin was that he could not
be compelled to give him money. He had always believed
that Ruskin had spoken the truth when he said he would
rather go to prison than pay him money. And in his two
months with show people Hubert had learned that the
blackmail value of an accusation of homosexuality was
considerably less in show business than in a boarding
school, where there were frightened teachers and stu-
dents. Philip W. Carstairs, for example, was known to
have a boy friend in New York and had been whisked off
to Provincetown by two men and two women at the end
of his Playhouse engagement. Even Audrey, the least
knowledgeable of the Players, referred to Carstairs as an
old queen, and she was neither shocked nor repelled. A
great artist, she also called him. Hubert Ward therefore
concluded that if he was to get any money out of Martin
Ruskin it would have to be voluntarily on Ruskin's part.
And Martin Ruskin appeared to be the only man in the
world at the moment who would be good for two hundred
dollars, the absolute minimum with which to return to
Hubert's twenty-first birthday passed with no notice
taken by anyone. He had not mentioned the occasion to
anyone else in the company, and they were all busy with
their own plans. It was the last week for the Playhouse,
and the actors and actresses were full of talk about cast-
ing the new plays on Broadway. Hildegarde and Julie
already had jobs for later in the fall season, and the others
had somehow found out which new plays would have
THE BIG LAUGH
parts they could apply for. "What are you going to do?"
"I wish I knew," said Hubert Ward.
"Are you going to look for a job?"
"I wouldn't know how. How do you?"
"The best way is to find out what parts are in the new
plays. Then you show up every day at the managers'
"And then what?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Then what, yes? I per-
sonally go to St. Malachy's and light a candle. Not that
I'm a Catholic, but it's supposed to be good luck."
"Where do you find out about the new plays?"
"Well, the Algonquin, when I can afford it. That's
where you got a chance of being introduced to an author.
Or if you just want to hear the latest news, the English
Tea Room is where I go. And at night, Tony's. Or Tony's in
the afternoon, too. That's a speakeasy on Forty-ninth
Street. I know a girl friend of mine that went there one
afternoon. It's better to sit in the kitchen. And this man
was fried and he picked her up, and who should he turn
out to be but Harold Kingston Schobel, the playwright?
She's living with him. Of course that doesn't happen all
"What does a man do? Actors? What do they do?"
"I don't know. The best way is to be a chorus boy."
"That lets me out."
"Yeah. Well, I guess it's the English Tea Room for
you, Dick. I mean Hubert. Ruskin doesn't want you?"
JOHN O HARA
"For what? The Jumping Jack! Didn't he say any-
thing to you about it? You should have asked him."
"The play I was in? The son of a bitch. I could play
that part. I was all right, wasn't I? Wasn't I, Audrey?"
"I thought so. You looked the part, and you never
went up. Not that it was Hamlet. But some people with
only one line can blow it. You should have asked him.
Maybe he thinks you don't want the part."
He left her hurriedly and went to Ruskin's office,
having no idea what he was going to say, but actuated by
desperation. Ruskin and Sylvia Stone were doing some
"Mr. Ruskin? May I see you a minute please?"
"You're seeing me. Wuddia want?"
"Can I talk to you?"
"He means without me," said Sylvia.
"Can it wait?" said Ruskin.
"That's all right, Marty," said Sylvia. "I can come
back." She picked up the larger of two piles of bills and
"You're all het up about something. Sit down, Hubert.
Take a cigarette and marshal your thoughts."
"No thanks. I don't feel like a cigarette. Mr. Ruskin,
I did good work this summer, didn't I?"
"Yes, I guess so."
"I mean I worked hard. I did everything she told
me — Sylvia. And I was often here till two o'clock in the
morning hanging scenery. The next morning out with the
station wagon, putting those cards in store windows. And
I saved you a lot of money on that station wagon. I
THE BIG LAUGH
cleaned the valves with a screwdriver one Monday when
everybody else was taking a day off. And painted and
varnished it. Not to mention I waxed the Playhouse floor,
and a lot of other things I did that you probably never
heard about." ^
"Sylvia gave you credit. You mean you want to come
back next summer?"
"Jesus Christ! Mr. Ruskin. Do you know how much
money I have? Beginning Monday I have no place to sleep
and no money to last me out the week."
"Well, you knew that's the way it was going to be. I
didn't give you any different impression. You were just
the same as everybody else. Only three members of my
company get paid, everybody knows that."
"But I worked hard, Mr. Ruskin. And now I've got
nothing to show for it. I can hitchhike back to New York,
but I have nothing when I get there."
"Leading up to a touch, Hubert, you're wasting your
"Listen, I could have ruined it for you with the
Shackle ton kid. She kept trying to get me to go out with
her. I could go out with her tonight if I wanted to. I did
everything you asked me to do, and Sylvia. And you're
not even putting me in The Jumping Jack."
"Oh, that's what you want. No, I have somebody else
in mind for that. Somebody that can understudy the
brother. You couldn't go on and play the brother."
"Christ Almighty, I am the brother. Those are the kind
of people I grew up with, and they don't talk that horse-
shit way you have them talking. Have you ever been in a
JOHN O HARA
country club in your life? If you have, you didn't listen
to young people talking."
"You want to rewrite the dialog, too?"
"Somebody ought to. The part I played was just
wisecracks, but the brother's serious. Yes, I could play the
brother, much better than anybody you ever knew. If you
ask me, you never knew anybody that came from that kind
of a family. Except me."
"The man that wrote the play is a graduate of Prince-
"Well, I didn't graduate from prep school but I could
do better than that."
"All right, do it. Write a play, and if it's better than
Jumping Jack I'll buy it."
"You're a mean son of a bitch. You know I can't
write. But if I could I'd write something true to life in-
stead of that slop." He stopped. "Aw, what the hell. You're
all phonies. Every one of you. And you, you're the worst
because you don't even recognize a phony play. If it was
about the Civil War, you could tell it was phony. But it's
about now, 1928, and you don't know how phony it is. I
said too much, but I feel better." He reached in his pocket
and took out some keys, which he tossed on the desk. "The
station wagon. So long."
Sylvia Stone slowly re-entered the office after Hubert
Ward left. She resumed her place at the desk and put the
stack of bills in front of her. She adjusted her glasses and
picked up the top bill from the stack. "Lester D. Mead-
ows, Hyannis. To repairing roof, thirty-eight seventy-five,"
THE BIG LAUGH
she said. "That was where a couple limbs were blown off
during that storm/'
"Quit putting on the act," said Martin Ruskin. "You
heard the kid shooting off."
"That's not my department, Marty/'
"He's right about Jumping Jack."
"So? When you go take in a show you pay two-
twenty to hear people talk true to life? That I can get for
a nickel on the Jerome Avenue Line. That I can get from
my various relatives and their in-laws. Who knows from
country club conversation? Me, forking over two-twenty?
I make the trip downtown to take in a play, I prefer leav-
ing all that behind me for one evening."
"I don't know, Syl. He put it into words what I've
been thinking. I couldn't put my finger on it, but this play
never got across to me. Reading it, yes. Seeing it per-
formed, hearing the lines, no. My own dialog, too. If the
son of a bitch could write I'd give him a couple hundred."
He slapped the top of the desk. "I'm gonna put him in
"Marty, don't do it."
"Mind your own business, Sylvia Steinbrink. I fol-
low my hunches."
"Such hunches you should be reserving for the op-
"Listen, fuck you and your nasty innuendoes. All sum-
mer you been hinting, hinting, hinting. Hinting what was
none of your business even if it was true, which it isn't."
"If the shoe fits," said Sylvia.
Martin Ruskin got up and went to the door and
JOHN O H AR A
called to Hubert Ward, who was halfway down the lane
to the main road. "Hubert! Hubert Ward!"
Hubert turned around and came back, looking down
at the ground so that Ruskin would not see his tears.
"Step in my office, I want to talk to you," said Ruskin.
Sylvia was already out of the office and Ruskin told
Hubert Ward to take a seat. "If Jumping Jack is such a ter-
rible play why do you want to work in it? Tell me that."
"I didn't say it was a terrible play. I only said you had
the people talking all wrong, especially the brother."
"Give me an example, for instance."
Hubert Ward thought a moment. "I don't remember
the exact words, but where he's talking to his sister.
They're talking about their mother."
"You're speaking of the first act where they're talking
about their mother, or the second act?"
"I was thinking about the first act."
"Phyllis sitting on the piano stool. Ronnie is swing-
ing the golf stick."
"Yes, and even that's wrong, Mr. Ruskin. They're sup-
posed to have just come home from the club. He wouldn't
bring his golf clubs home with him, Mr. Ruskin. He'd leave
them in his locker or in the pro shop."
"Business. Not important. What I'm interested, why do
you think his speech is phony?"
"I'm trying to remember exactly what he says."
"Here's a script. Show me," said Ruskin.
Hubert leafed through the play script. "Here it is.
'Ronnie: Unfortunately Mother is dining out this evening
with Mr. and Mrs. Van Lear. Therefore we must postpone
THE BIG LAUGH
our discussion with her until tomorrow morning. How-
ever, you may rest assured that I shall devote no small
part of this evening to a preparation of my remarks to
"What's wrong with it? They're supposed to be edu-
cated people. Rich, upper-class society."
"I never heard anybody talk like that."
"You consider yourself an authority on upper-class
"The kind of people these are supposed to be, yes.
Maybe not an authority, but even my uncle wouldn't talk
that way, let alone Ronnie, a young fellow around my
"What would he say, according to you?"
"Well — I'm not a writer, but I know this is all wrong."
"Make a stab at it."
Hubert Ward studied the lines. "Well, something like
this: 'Mother's going to the Van Lears' tonight, but 111
give her an earful tomorrow.' Something like that."
"He's going to give his mother an earful?"
Hubert Ward put down the playscript. "Oh, I don't
know. Anyway, why should I rack my brains over your
"What if I let you play Ronnie?"
"Ronnie? Not the college boy? I'd give my left nut
to play that part," said Hubert Ward.
"You don't have to give anything. I'm giving you. I
decided to take a chance on you. Seventy-five dollars a
week, that's all it's worth."
"You mean it, on your word of honor?"
JOHN O HARA
"As a gentleman." Ruskin pronounced the word as
though there were no t in it. "This is your first big break,
Hubert, and I'm taking a big chance on you. You know
of course, I can let you go if you don't make good in re-
hearsals. You know that."
"Listen, Mr. Ruskin, if I'm not any good 111 tell you
"What I was thinking, though," said Ruskin. "It's a
small part, but important, and in places where the lines
don't sound right to you, you could screw things up. So
I tell you what I'm gonna do. You wait and drive back to
the city with me Tuesday and I'll get you a room in a
hotel and you make suggestions how I can make the lines
easier to say. I don't want the audience missing plot points
because you're going up in your lines."
"I haven't got any money. Three dollars and some
"I know a place on Forty-third Street. Get a room
there for six dollars a week. A lot of actors live there. And
two dollars a day ought to carry you for meals and mis-
cellaneous. That's fourteen — that's twenty a week 111 ad-
vance you and I can take it out of your pay after we open."
"I really don't know how to thank you. This is the
greatest thing that ever happened to me, Mr. Ruskin. And
five minutes ago I was seriously thinking about commit-
ting suicide. Really I was."
"Well, Hubert, don't do anything like that till after
the play closes, huh?" Ruskin grinned.
The play opened in late October and with the help
of the cut-rate ticket agencies ran until just after New
THE BIG LAUGH
Year's Day. It reminded one critic of Noel Coward's The
Vortex and another of Sidney Howard's The Silver Cord.
Percy Hammond said it was unpretentious, and George
Jean Nathan said it was delicatessen, but all the reviewers
welcomed back Hildegarde Finney as the mother and
Alexander Woollcott thought a newcomer called Hubert
Ward had possibilities if he would overcome a rather slav-
ish admiration of Glenn Hunter. "Who is Glenn Hunter?"
Hubert Ward asked Hildegarde.
"You'll get there," said Hildegarde Finney. "Any-
body that knows as little as you do, and has your luck."
When the play had been running two weeks Hubert
was having a drink in Tony's with Audrey and some young
people from other shows. It was a Saturday night, the
place was crowded. In the kitchen people were standing,
and others were wandering through the front rooms, hop-
ing to be invited to join a table. Hubert Ward became
aware that one wanderer had stopped at his table, and he
almost knew before he looked up at the man's face that it
would be Phil Sturtevant.
"Hello, Dick," said Sturtevant.
"Hello, Phil. I didn't know you ever came here.*
"Once in a while. Congratulations."
"Something I want to talk to you about."
"I know. But you don't want to talk about it now, do
"As good a time as any. Oh, hello, Audrey."
JOHN O HARA
"Isn't anybody going to ask me to sit down?" said
"You can sit down if you can find a chair," said
"I don't see any chairs," said Hubert Ward. "Phil, how
about if you come around to the theater Monday night,
and I'll have that for you."
"That'll be a good idea, Dick. You won't forget."
"I didn't forget. I just didn't have it."
"No, you certainly didn't. Well, 111 be around Mon-
day night. What's a good time?"
"Eleven o'clock. You going to bring your lawyer?"
"What do you know about my lawyer?" said Sturte-
"I know all about your lawyer. Getting a lawyer for a
lousy thirty-seven fifty, or whatever I owed you." Hubert
addressed his companions. "Big-hearted Otis, here. Sicked
his lawyer on me for a lousy thirty-seven fifty." Hubert's
friends stared at Sturtevant coldly, the thin bespectacled
Shylock in the Brooks Brothers suit, the enemy of the arts,
the intruder on a Saturday night at Tony's. It was the hos-
tility of the girls that finally drove him away. "He writes
for Time," said Hubert.
"Oh, that thing," said one of the girls.
"His father owns a flour mill out West," said Hubert.
"He looks it," said the girl. "All that Time crowd.
They push their way in everywhere and nobody ever
knows who they are. They all have an inferiority complex,
because they don't sign their articles and nobody knows
who they are. That one's a perfect example."
THE BIG LAUGH
"As it must to all men, death came fortnight ago,"
said one of the young men.
"To newsstand-buyer Glubglub," said the girl.
"A sharp rebuke to Times Medicine editor," said the
young man. "God!"
"What can he do to you, Hubert?" said Audrey.
"I guess he could have me arrested. I don't know. Ill
ask Ruskin's lawyer."
Sturtevant did nothing. He did not even appear on
the Monday night. But he continued to visit Tony's and
to stare across the room at Hubert Ward. The two young
men did not speak to each other. With the confidence of
his first success Hubert Ward began to think of himself
as a member of a profession. He was hardly even the most
minor of minor actors, and yet he was conscious of some
pedestrians' second looks at him when they saw him on
the streets of the East Side, and in the theatrical district
men and women whom he guessed to be actors and
actresses showed definite signs of recognizing him. He
wore a Harris tweed jacket and grey flannel slacks and
carried a Malacca stick, and he took longer steps in walk-
ing in the foot traffic. He had been mentioned with the
other actors by nearly all the critics, and singled out for
personal mention by two, but this limited publicity in the
press was not an accurate measure of the extent of his
acquaintance with the public. He had made his debut in
a season when interest in the Broadway legitimate thea-
ter was nearly at its all-time high, and anyone who had
a job in a Broadway show was certain at least to be rec-
ognized by everyone who had any connection with or
JOHN O HARA
fondness for the theater. One play, even so unremarkable
a play as The Jumping Jack, had made the difference for
Hubert Ward between being and not being show people.
It had likewise made the difference to show people them-
selves. Hubert Ward was working. Whatever he had done
or not done before, no matter how he had got his job, he
was working, and to all those actors and actresses who
were not working, he was legitimate, a professional. He
would walk past the lay-offs in front of the Palace Theater,
men who had played in hundreds of vaudeville houses
and — some of them — who were paid a thousand dollars a
week, and they knew who he was, the young juvenile in
that thing of Marty Ruskin's. Among his out-of-work
contemporaries there was inevitably some envy, but they
also felt a curious pride in his small success because he
was their age and their representative on the current play-
Martin Ruskin was at the theater every night, and he
always stayed to watch the curtain calls from out front.
It was a small cast — nine actors in all — and the curtain
calls had been rehearsed so that the players of the smaller
parts walked rapidly from the wings and took their places
in a row which ultimately included the entire company.
There would be a company bow, then the smaller-part
actors would move aside to give the center of the stage to
the featured players. The biggest hand was always for
Hildegarde Finney, but she had been a star in several
previous plays. Unmistakably, night after night, the next
biggest hand was for Hubert Ward.
"You see? You see?" Ruskin said to Sylvia Stone.
THE BIG LAUGH
"Listen, I won't give you an argument. You were
right. I can't explain it."
"Don't you wish you'd of signed him up when I
"Well, I'll never get him again for any seventy-five
dollars. He has two offers already."
"He tell you that?"
"No, he didn't tell me that. He didn't tell me any-
thing, and I don't have him under contract."
"Plenty of other actors, Marty."
"Seventy-fi'-dollar actors, yes. And wait till this kid
gets the right play. Jesus!"
"Which he will have to rewrite the dialog?"
"Don't remind me. He's a bad boy, Syl, but he's got
the thing they call class, and you can't get that out of a jar
of Outdoor Number 7. You can't smear it on, and you can't
rub it off."
"And that's why you got this crush on him, because
he has class. Yeah? You better get married and start rais-
ing a family."
"That's your solution to my problem, eh, Syl? That'll
take care of it, eh, Syl? For how long? And in the mean-
while, what do I do tonight?"
"You get drunk and go to bed with one of your
"That's right. Well, it's better than getting married
to some poor unsuspecting dame. The whore I can give a
couple dollars and send her home. A wife stays. What
did we do tonight?"
JOHN O HARA
"A little under nine hundred."
"Not good enough. I guess the notice goes up next
week. Goodnight, Syl. See you tomorrow."
"Goodnight, Marty. Don't hang around, huh?"
"Oh, I avoid him."
"You'll get over it when the show closes, you won't
have to stand here every night."
"If it was that easy."
On the closing night of The Jumping Jack Martin
Ruskin gave a party for the company and about a hun-
dred invited guests from the Broadway world. He rented
a suite in one of the Fifth Avenue hotels because he
wanted the party to have class, and since many of the
guests were going on to the Mayfair Dance at the Ritz,
most of those present were in evening dress. Marty's per-
sonal guest for the evening was Tessie Gibson, an agree-
able beauty from the George White show who found it
almost impossible to pronounce r, and who compounded
the defect by her habit of saying, "Right," to nearly every
remark addressed to her. "Wite," she would say, nodding
slowly. Her high, full breasts were so firm that they barely
moved when she walked, and Marty asked her if they
were made of cement.
"Wite. Cement," she said, smiling, and looking down
at them. "Cement." She was wearing a vivid red dress cut
low. "Most people like 'em that way, Motty."
"Oh, I like them, Tess. I'm not complaining. I just
wondered, if I gave them a little push would they give?"
"Twy it and see, why don't you?"
He pressed his hand against her. "Yeah, they give."
THE BIG LAUGH
"Cu-yossity satisfied now, Motty?"
"Wite. It's bettah if it's only pahtry," she said.
Martin Ruskin looked at her. "You know, the funny
thing is I understand you. Maybe that's a sign I'm a little
All who were coming — the guests and the crashers —
had arrived by one o'clock, and at two there was a good-
sized exodus of the Mayfair Dance crowd, leaving the
Jumping Jack company, the less chic, and the crashers.
The character of the party changed at that point from
a polite gathering of professional people to a drunken
brawl. The three-piece orchestra — piano, trumpet, and
accordion — played show tunes, and there was a good deal
of singing, solo and group. There was some dancing in
the foyer, but in the rooms the carpet discouraged it. Some
of the men and women were in groups of four or five, and
the others were pairing off in the interests of seduction.
At about half -past two the first fight took place; the actor
husband of an actress punched the writer of drama news
for one of the morning papers, and Marty Ruskin told all
three to get the hell out, which they did, together. A few
minutes later an ingenue from a drawing-room comedy
grasped the hand of a man who played the priest in
a prison play and led him to a coat closet in the foyer, only
to discover that it was already in use by a recently mar-
ried leading woman and a musical comedy conductor.
(The leading woman's husband was in Baltimore with a
play.) Two chorus girls were busy decorating a middle-
JOHN O HARA
aged actor who was passed out on a divan. They put a lily
in each of his hands and a rose above each ear, and stuck
a white carnation in his fly. At 3:10 a.m. Sandra De Moe,
the showgirl, emerged from the bathroom clad in a bath
towel in front and a bath towel in back, which she held in
place with her hands. She paraded through the two rooms
and returned to the bathroom unmolested, but when she
returned to the party in her evening dress a young man
whose father owned a chain of theaters in Philadelphia
bit her on the neck. He was thereupon beaten into in-
sensibility by Sandra's younger brother, a tackle on the
N.Y.U. football team. The beating and kicking took a
little time, and when it was over many of the guests went
home. The theater magnate's son was carried out of the
suite and placed on the floor in front of the elevators. He
had a nasty reputation anyway.
The musicians departed at four o'clock, and now the
suite was occupied by the bartender, a waiter, a waiter
captain, and half a dozen people including the host, Tessie
Gibson, an advertising salesman from Variety, sl detective
from the Broadway Squad, the two chorus girls who had
been decorating the drunk, and Hubert Ward, who for
one of the few times in his life had had a little too much to
drink. He and the host were the only persons present who
were not sober. Martin Ruskin took a roll of banknotes
from his pocket and peeled off three or four and handed
them to the detective. "Thanks for taking care of Sonny
Boy, Jim," said Ruskin.
"Any time, Marty. Son of a bitch comes over from
Philly and always causes trouble, without fail. One of
THE BIG LAUGH
these nights hell get it. I only hope I'm some place else.
His old man's a friend of Walker." The detective nodded
to one of the chorines, the Variety salesman nodded to
the other, and the four departed.
"Well, wuddia say? The Clamhouse?" said Ruskin.
"No, I don't like Hahlem," said Tessie. "I don't want
to be stuck up theh with you two passed out. Too fah f'm
home foh me."
"Well, Dave's? A speak? It's too early for Reuben's."
"Let's take a couple bottles of that stuff and go to my
place," said Hubert Ward.
"Wheh's you' place, Hubie?"
"That's the Village! Wite. Let's go theh, Motty."
"All right, what the hell. Hey, waiter. Gimme, oh,
two bottles of the Scotch and two of the rye. And here, this
is for you. Captain. For you. Barkeep, take this." He gave
them money, and he and Tess and Hubert Ward left the
"I'd like to see what kind of a joint you live in, too,"
said Martin Ruskin. "You got it alone, or with somebody?"
"The money you paid me, naturally I have a duplex
"Make a deal with me and you will have a duplex
penthouse," said Ruskin.
"I can get one now without making a deal with you,"
said Hubert Ward.
"Well, let's not talk money tonight," said Ruskin. "Let's
forget about money."
JOHN O H AR A
"Wite, at least foh the pwesent, Motty," said Tess.
"Foh the pwesent/'
Hubert Ward's apartment, sublet month to month
and costing him more than a week's pay every month, was
a large room, a bath and kitchen, with windows on three
sides. It was furnished and decorated in restrained modern
style and obviously not cheaply. "A woman that writes
books," Hubert Ward explained. "Some magazine sent her
to Europe to write an article, and I got it because I was
known. She saw me in the play."
"I think it's ve'y snappy," said Tess. "Look. Just a
hand. And look at this. A little gazelle, isn't it? Isn't that
a gazelle? And all ivowy. A lot of books. I like books.
What's this? This man, he looks dead."
"He is dead. That's a death mask," said Ruskin.
"Oh, the pooh fella. What do you mean, Motty? They
put a mask on him when he died? Is that some weligion?"
"You want me to explain it, Tess?"
"I guess you bettah not. I might not like it. I have to
see a man about a little puppy. I'll be wite back."
Ruskin prepared Scotch highballs for himself and
Hubert. "This is better than going to the Clamhouse. I
saw enough people for one night. Here's wishing you luck,
"Thanks, Marty. You too."
"Oh, with me it isn't so much a question of luck. I
make a dollar. I make a lousy dollar and I probably always
will. I don't try for anything big. I'd like to have some-
thing big some day, but I know I won't. My chance I had,
and I blew it. I don't know how I blew it, but I did. The
THE BIG LAUGH
biggest thing happened to me recently was you. You,
Hubie. You're going places and doing things."
"Maybe. I hope so."
Tess appeared. "Fascinating in theh. She has a
pictsha of two dikes and a young gil. Theh not doing any-
thing yet, but all you have to do is look at it to wealize, one
of the dikes is going to get the gil. The one ovah the bath-
"Who are you rooting for, Tess?"
"Oh, I don't know, Motty. Go on in and take a look.
And the man with his thing bwoken off. A pictsha of a
man with his thing bwoken off. Ooh, I bet that hu't. Only
I think it's a pictsha of a statue and the thing got bwoken
off, maybe when they dug it up. One of those statues. The
one ovah the washstand, Hubie."
"The woman you wented this fwom, what kind of
books does she wite?"
"I don't know. I never read any."
"You stop to think, all the pictshas show nudes. And
ovah theh, that statue, the two necking and theh ready
foh it. They got no clothes on."
"That's a good start. When they take off their clothes
they mean business," said Ruskin. "That statue was made
by the man you asked about."
"That old man?"
"He wasn't always old, Tess. How about if you take
off your clothes, Tess?"
"You want me to? Wight away?"
JOHN O HARA
"Sure. All of us will."
"I didn't know it was gonna be that, Motty."
"Do you have any objections?"
"Hubie's as su'pwised as I am."
"Ill bet if you start taking off your clothes Hubiell
take his off too."
"How ah we going to awange this? You just want to
watch, Motty? I don't like two at a time."
"But I heard you did, Tess."
"Oh, that's why you invited me. I wond'ed why you
invited me to you' pahty when you only met me once
befo'. I thought I was just foh you. Ahn't you twicky? I
think you want to make a pass at Hubie, is that it?"
"Well what else?"
"Wight. Now I unde'stand it."
She stood up and got out of her evening dress and
panties, all she was wearing, and ran her hands down over
her lovely body, in which she took a nearly impersonal
pride. "I don't think Hubie gets it yet," she said.
"I get it all right," said Hubert Ward. He took off his
clothes and let them fall on the floor, and now Ruskin
"Motty, I think I like Hubie bettah. You haven't got
any muscles, and Hubie has nice shouldahs." She held
out her arms and she and Hubert embraced, standing
up. Suddenly, as though a switch had been turned, she
wanted Hubie immediately. Her good-natured quality was
all gone and she backed on to the bed, taking Hubie with
her. "Don't let him touch you," she said.
"I won't, I won't," said Hubert Ward.
THE BIG LAUGH
"Go away, you di'ty faiwy," she said to Ruskin. She
kicked at Ruskin, then lay back on the bed and embraced
Hubie. "Do it to me, don't let him touch you," she said.
When he was inside her she laughed. "We fooled him, we
fooled him, we fooled him," she said. ~-\
"You lousy dirty bastards! You pigs! You lousy filthy
pigs," said Ruskin, and he stood almost directly above
them and watched and listened to their rising and falling
passion and their contentment with each other that fol-
"Look at him. He didn't like that," she said. She had
her arm around her new lover's neck. "I stole you away
fwom him, and now he doesn't want you any moah."
"You horrible bitch!" screamed Ruskin, and he came
at her with fists like hammers. She covered her breasts
with one arm and her face with the other, and Hubert
Ward fought him off. It was easy, since Ruskin's attack
was concentrated on the girl and he did not defend him-
self against Hubert Ward. Hubert Ward got a strangle-
hold on Ruskin and pulled him away from the girl, and
Ruskin now began to weep. His arms fell to his sides and
there was no fight in him. Hubert released him, and he
put his clothes on. The girl sat up in the bed.
"That wasn't twue about me, Motty. Only once, and
I didn't like it. You shouldn't believe all you heah."
"Don't speak to me, you whore."
"I'm not that eithah, Motty. Not weally."
"She's a whore, I tell you," said Ruskin.
"You better shut up or 111 give you a punch in the
JOHN O HARA
"A haw's bettah than a faiwy, Motty. And I nevah
hea'd you wuh a faiwy till tonight you admitted it. Did
you know he was, Hubie?"
"I knew it the first time I saw him," said Hubert
"Did you evah go with him? I don't ca', but did you?"
"Hundreds of times," said Ruskin. "He's been my
sweetie since last summer."
"You lying son of a bitch," said Hubert. He punched
Ruskin in the mouth.
"I had him any time I wanted him, and so did any-
body else. This is the easiest piece of trade on Broad-
"Hit him again, Hubie. Don't let him say that about
"Go ahead hit me, but that won't take away from the
truth." Ruskin was now dressed, although he had not tied
his tie. He put his hand to his mouth, looked at the blood
on his hand. "There was a lot of talk about you and
I, Hubie. Now I'm going to tell them it was true. You'll
never live that down."
"Huh. Who cares, even if it was true?"
"Your people. Those respectable people you came
"Get out of my apartment."
"You kiss him goodnight for me, Tessie." Ruskin
brandished an ivory statuette of a praying nun. "Stay
away, Hubie. I'm going." He tossed the statuette in a
chair and quickly got outside the apartment.
"Now we got nobody to disturb us, dahling, and we
THE BIG LAUGH
got all Sunday and all day tomowwow. I like you, Hubie.
I honestly do. Honestly."
Franklin Hubert was not one of the visionary sort of
engineers. He had his degree from Stevens Tech, he had
worked in the field, he had served his country well in the
102d Division, and he came home from France and the
Army of Occupation at Coblentz with the impatient de-
termination to make money. All his experience and obser-
vation had shown him that the real money in his profes-
sion went to the men who stayed close to the home office.
The men in the field, even the superintendents of the big-
gest projects, were lucky to make fifteen thousand a year,
and at forty Franklin Hubert had not yet been given a
major project. The firm kept its 1917 promise and took him
back at ten thousand, but he knew that if he got sent out
to the Philippines or the Sudan or Wyoming he would
never again have the chance to get out of the ten-
thousand-dollar class. He could not marry and have a fam-
ily — it was already getting a little late for that — and he
would be running risks of bad health and accidents. At
fifty he would be brought home, given a dinner and a sil-
ver tray, and retired at half pay, with no family of his own
and probably some physical handicap that would make it
impossible to play golf.
He therefore took a negative stand when the firm
assigned him to a pipe-line job in Arizona. "But that's the
kind of job we thought you'd like," said Ike Neidlinger,
the engineering vice-president of the firm. "It's not very
tough. Not very different from army engineering, and
JOHN O HARA
you'll be able to finish it up in about eighteen months."
"That's a year and a half, Ike, and I'd be forty-two.
Why don't you let one of the younger fellows have a crack
"They're dying to, but what did you have in mind?
Pretty soon we're going to want something for our ten
thousand a year."
"That's only fair, and I can earn it. Put me in the busi-
"Which end of the business end? Accounting?"
"No. New business."
"You want to be a salesman? That's what it amounts
"I'm young enough to get around, and at the same
time old enough to represent the firm. I came out of the
army a lieutenant-colonel, and that's a pretty respectable
rank, Ike. Most men my age stopped at major."
"I thought your promotion was for bravery."
"Well, it was, but no matter how I got it, I was a lieu-
"Generally speaking, this firm never made a practice
of going after new business. It came to us."
"I know. But are you pleased with that policy? You
personally? Ike, we could double our business without
doubling our overhead."
"You've thought about this, I can see. Of course our
overhead has never been a problem. It's fairly constant
from year to year."
"All right, all the more reason why we should go after
the new business that's coming up, all over the world."
THE BIG LAUGH
"We're not J. G. White."
"But in ten years, we could be."
"Darn you, Frank, you know darn well this appeals
to me. It's what I was advocating before the war, and now
youVe got me stirred up all over again. All right, let's just
keep this under our hats for the present, and 111 go to
work on the other partners."
In engineering circles the news that Stieglitz & Over-
ton were bidding against much larger firms was taken to
mean that Ike Neidlinger was at last getting his way and
prevailing over the ultra-conservative policy of D. D. Over-
ton. This interpretation was prematurely accurate: Darius
Draper Overton had a stroke and died at a directors' meet-
ing, and Ike Neidlinger was elected president of Stieglitz
& Overton. His debt of inspiration to Franklin Hubert was
discharged by Hubert's election to the board of directors,
and Franklin Hubert at forty-one was likewise and finally
on his way.
But his enjoyment of his new status was almost im-
mediately marred by troubles that afflicted him only be-
cause they concerned his favorite sister. Kitty Ward was
his only sister, but she was very dear to him and he al-
ways referred to her as his favorite. Her husband, San-
ford Ward, a trust officer in a Newark bank, was caught in
an unimaginative theft of $100,000 worth of securities
with which he had met some margin calls. He did not
deny the accusation, he did not give any thought to the
various ways in which whole or partial restitution could be
made and the matter hushed up. He simply reached in
his desk drawer and took out a Savage automatic and fired
JOHN O HARA
it in his right temple. He had always been a weakling,
Franklin Hubert had opposed the marriage, and the man-
ner of the suicide was as messy as the man's failure to
realize that the bank was more vitally concerned with
hushing up the theft than with his penitent splashing of
his brains. Ward's bond covered the loss, and the bonding
company could have been placated by contributions by
relatives and Princeton friends. But Sandy Ward had never
in life given much thought to anyone but himself, and in
like manner he died.
Franklin Hubert could hardly bear to see his sister.
She had always known he had never altered his original
opinion of her husband: a snob who traded on two family
names and all their distinctions and connections; a man-
dolin player, a cotillion leader, who he was sure sat down
to pee. It was a mystery to Hubert why Sandy married
Kitty as well as why Kitty married Sandy. The Huberts
were Somerset County farming stock, who had never
hunted the fox on horseback and had moved to Newark
only one generation ago. And Kitty was not a great beauty
at any time in her life. But Sandy's mother liked Kitty, and
at parties and dances Sandy found that he was always
going back to the Hubert girl after dancing with prettier
and richer girls, who failed to appreciate the honor of his
attentions. As for Kitty, she loved him from the start, and
she never attempted to explain that to her brother. They
had a daughter, a second daughter who died aged three
weeks, and a son, Richard Hubert Ward, named at
Sandy's suggestion for the Richard Hubert who had given
his life at the Battle of Monmouth. Great-great-great-
THE BIG LAUGH
great-uncle Richard Hubert, whose portrait, painted circa
1840, hung in the Hubertville, New Jersey, Borough Hall.
Kitty Ward had anticipated her brother's dis-
comfiture, and when Franklin Hubert kissed her she said,
"You don't have to say anything, Frank. But I'm glad you
came so soon. If I'd listened to you — but then I wouldn't
have the children. The children and you. I'll be all right.
Just hold me for a little minute, and then we'll talk about
Franklin Hubert fell into the habit of Sunday dinner
with his sister and her children, and very soon he was be-
coming a stereotyped uncle — with the difference that
Richard Ward made it unlikely that a stereotyped relation-
ship could exist there. Franklin Hubert liked women,
and he found that the prospect of settling down with one
woman became less inviting now that he could easily do
so. Too easily; women wanted to marry him, women his
own age and a little younger, who were attracted to him
and apprehensive of lonely years ahead. Franklin Hubert
became, in a still current phrase, an artful dodger and, in
another current phrase, a confirmed bachelor, who got
from his sister and her children all the family life he really
wanted. The girl was no problem: she was informally en-
gaged to a young man at Lehigh, a predictably solid citizen
whose father had a real estate business in East Orange.
But Richard Ward, in his uncle's private opinion, was a
little prick. The day of his father's funeral he pulled out a
pack of Omars and offered his uncle a cigarette. "Your
mother doesn't approve of that, does she?" said Franklin
JOHN O HARA
"No, but she knows I smoke," said Richard Ward.
"Then cut it out."
"Who's gonna make me?"
"You're going to be a great help, I can see that," said
"I don't see what smoking has to do with it. My father
didn't smoke, but look what he did. Stole, and left Mother
"Your mother isn't penniless. She isn't rich, but she
"Papa didn't leave her any money."
"She'll have a little from his insurance, so don't go
around saying your mother is penniless."
"Oh, then I can go to Andover?"
"I doubt it. But you can go to high school."
"High school? With a bunch of niggers and Italians?
"Your mother hasn't got enough money to send you
away to a place like Andover."
"Well, you have, haven't you? I heard you won five
thousand dollars on Jack Dempsey beating that French-
"The sum was five hundred dollars."
"Papa said you won five thousand. I guess he was a
liar about that, too. He was always bragging about every-
thing, just so it was somebody in our family. Even about
"What do you mean, even about me?"
"Well, you didn't like him and he didn't like you,
but you were Mother's brother. You would have thought
THE BIG LAUGH
our family were the richest and better than anybody else.
I got sick of listening to it. All you had to do was com-
pare our old Dodge with anybody's Pierce-Arrow. Now I
guess we won't even have the Dodge. Have to take the
trolley if we want to go anywhere. I'm thinking of run-
ning away. I won't go to high school with a lot of niggers
and Italians. I won't do it."
"What you need is — "
"Oh, shut up. Hang a piece of crepe on your nose,
your brains are dead."
Franklin Hubert provided the money for Andover
and paid for his niece's wedding. Kitty Ward protested
that every time he accumulated a bit of money to spend
on himself, some urgent need occurred in her own little
brood. Franklin Hubert had had the same thought, but
reassured her with the observation that blood was thicker
than water. He could not bring himself to add that it was
also thicker than whiskey, which Kitty had taken to in the
quiet of her lonely house. He pretended not to notice. She
was alone most of the time, and the reports she got from
Andover were not items she saved to show with pride when
Frank would come for Sunday dinner.
The hit-and-run accident was so outrageous and yet
so much in character for Richard Ward that his uncle,
even in the fury of his indignation, could convince him-
self that Richard himself must feel revulsion. But Richard
told Hubert's niece that old women were always saying
that when they go they wanted to go quickly, and this
particular old woman probably never knew what hit her.
Richard's sister Hope, now Mrs. Albert W. Pierce, Jr., and
JOHN O HARA
the mother of twin daughters, stared at her brother. All
the conventionalism that had been drilled into her willing
soul, and that she had acquired in her marriage and
motherhood and suburbanism, made her impervious to
the shock that her brother's brutality might have con-
veyed. She was seven years older than Richard, had been
able to ascribe earlier misbehavior to another convention-
ality — that of the nasty younger brother — but in the hap-
piness and security of her orderly life she had no room for
such a creature. "I just don't know him," she told her hus-
band. "Is that possible? He sat there and told me these
things, and it was like an actor playing a part. Just as if
he didn't believe what he was saying any more than I
did. But he did believe it. And I never want to see him
again. I never want him to come anywhere near the twins.
Or me. Or you. I don't hate him. I just — nothing." Until
he was twenty years old Richard Ward's home was never
more than ten miles from his sister's, but she never in-
vited him to visit her, and saw him only twice, quite by
accident. She seemed so preoccupied that he abandoned
her to her dull husband and he-forgot-how-many chil-
To Franklin Hubert it seemed as though his sister
had an inexhaustible store of patience for her son, that
every new piece of wrongdoing by Richard found her
ready with forgiveness and excuses. But perversely she
was becoming more and more impatient with those who
sought to help or console her for Richard's misdeeds, and
when Richard at last killed a human being, Kitty Ward
behaved as though her brother and her friends were per-
THE BIG LAUGH
secuting her. She conceded readily enough that Richard
had done a horrible thing, and she refused to listen to
him and his perfunctory self-justification; but she lashed
out at Franklin Hubert, cruelly and recklessly — and
drunkenly. "What did you expect? You hated his father,
you tried to stop me from marrying him. And you never
liked the child, never. Nothing I did was right. Marrying
Sandy, or the way I was raising Richard. You've always
"For God's sake, Kitty — "
"Don't deny it. You always sneered at Sandy, and
you said terrible things about Richard. Terrible things.
Why don't you leave us alone? Stop interfering with our
Franklin Hubert was not a subtle man. He believed
in friendship, in love of mother and country, of a man
for a woman; he believed in fighting for what he thought
was right and in helping those who needed help; in fair
contests with husband-hunting women, in honest business
dealings, and in taking defeat without grumbling. The
war had taught him that bravery and cowardice appeared
sometimes in unexpected places, that a quiet sissy could
act more courageously than a Dartmouth he-man— a
judgment that had been confusing to him when Sanford
Ward had shown no courage at all. Nearly everything
that Franklin Hubert believed in in his twenties lasted
him all his life, and his sister's turning on him now
wounded him because she had been brought up to believe
the same things. The wound hurt enough to make him won-
der why she had inflicted it, and he was conscientiously
JOHN O HARA
dissatisfied with the quick explanation that she was over-
wrought and quite possibly going through change of life.
With so little equipment for analyzing Kitty's behav-
ior — no more than brotherly love and a sense of de-
cency — he put his unsubtle mind to work. It took him
days, then weeks, but he found his answer: Kitty was de-
fending herself. She was defending what she knew to
have been an unwise choice of husband, and an unlucky
motherhood of a son. Franklin Hubert was convinced of
the accuracy of his diagnosis, and he never again at-
tempted such an analysis of a human condition; but he
was thereafter guided by this analysis in his relationship
with Kitty in matters concerning her son. It helped a
It helped, for instance, when Richard was sent home
from Andover and from St. Bartholomew's, an undistin-
guished "church school," and from Chichester's, a catch-
all institution near New Haven that contained youths who
were cramming for the College Boards and other youths
who had no chance whatever of getting into college. It
was as dubious a distinction to be enrolled at Chichester's
as to be fired from it. There was a youth at Chichester's
who graduated at twenty-one because a condition of his
grandfather's will was that he must be accepted at Yale
to qualify for a two-million-dollar legacy. But most of the
boys had no ambition beyond athletics and nights at the
Pre Cat — Pre Catelan — a Thirty-ninth Street cabaret.
Richard Hubert Ward did not excel in sports, and by the
time he reached Chichester's the Pre Cat had closed for-
ever. Still, he did achieve expulsion from Chichester's,
THE BIG LAUGH
which in the world of Eastern prep schools and universi-
ties was like Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard; "The same thing,
Franklin Hubert met each new crisis with a calm
that was born of his analysis of Kitty Ward's reactions
to her son's troubles. He developed a method of conduct-
ing these interviews with Kitty. "I'll ask around and write
some letters, and we'll see where we can get him in. We'll
get him in somewhere, don't worry," he would say.
"The expense — I wish I could make him understand,"
she would say.
"Important thing is to find a school that will take
him. Never mind about the expense."
"It's just not fair, Frank."
"Well, I have none of my own, and blood is thicker
No mention was made of Sandy Ward's rich rela-
tives. They had never considered Sandy as close as Sandy
had considered them, and they had never indicated that
they felt any obligations toward Sandy's widow and chil-
dren. Kitty had never heard from any of them, and her
brother was privately convinced that the scandal had
given them a good excuse for keeping their distance.
"If I thought it would do any good to have you talk
to him," she would say.
He would give her the reply she hoped for: "No,
Kitty, that wouldn't do any good. He knows everything
I'm likely to say, and it would only mean unpleasantness
JOHN O HARA
Nothing, therefore, was said, since Kitty likewise
wanted to avoid unpleasantness. In the summers that fol-
lowed the Andover and St. Bartholomew's expulsions she
told Richard to look for a job, but he said in all truth that
he did not know how to look for a job. For a week or two
he skimmed lightly over the Help Wanted advertise-
ments at breakfast, but after breakfast, or before he was
quite finished, someone would call for him to play tennis
or go on a picnic. When she made good her threat to cut
his allowance he charged golf balls to his uncle's club
account and sold them as lost balls — Silver King balls for
a quarter apiece, a seventy-five-cent saving to the pur-
chasers — until Franklin Hubert put a stop to that. Rich-
ard charged, and immediately pawned, two new suits
from Bamberger's in Newark. There was nothing very in-
genious about his methods of obtaining cash, but he ig-
nored none of the obvious ways.
Then, a week after he was sent home from Chiches-
ter's, the long-postponed serious talk with his mother
took place, and the only preparation she had made for
it was to allow her anger to rise and to take a few extra
drinks. "Take your leg off the arm of that chair," she be-
"If you're going to bawl me out at least I want to be
"You're going to be very uncomfortable when I get
through with you," she said.
"All right. Get it over with. I was kicked out of
"Three schools, and every time it gets worse. The
THE BIG LAUGH
second time it was such a nasty thing that I couldn't even
talk to you about it"
"But you can talk about this time, which is even
worse? I don't follow your logic, Mother."
"I can talk about this because it's something normal.
The other thing wasn't even normal."
"What do you want me to do? Promise I won't see
her again, the dentist's wife? All right, I promise. Is that
all? Now can I go?"
"Sit down in that chair and wait till I tell you you
"I don't see what there is to talk about. I was caught
with a woman and got kicked out for it. You don't hear
me denying it, do you? I don't know what else there is to
say. I'm not going to try and fill you up with a lot of lies,
because it wouldn't be any use. The only thing is you
don't expect me to take my solemn oath that 111 never
have anything more to do with women. That wouldn't be
logical. If you want me to be normal, that's normal. But
Judas priest! That wasn't the first time I ever had any-
thing to do with a woman. Or anyway a girl."
"What kind of girls have you been seeing behind my
"You'd be surprised. One just got married not so long
ago and you went to her wedding."
"The only wedding I've been to — " Kitty Ward was
remembering, and she remembered a girl, twentyish, in a
beaded Juliet cap, a veil, a smooth silken bodice. The girl
was handing a tiny bouquet of stephanotis with brief
streamers dangling from it to her maid of honor. She was
JOHN O HARA
turning, this girl, with a confident, frank smile to the
young man in a cutaway. And then a little later the girl,
with the same smile, was coming down the aisle on the
arm of her husband, and she had a special smile and a
special "Mrs. Ward" that she made with her lips.
"I don't believe you! I don't believe you!" said Kitty
"You don't have to if you don't want to," said her
"You're a filthy liar. The only woman that was nice
"Who? Judy Boswick?"
"Her mother, you unspeakable horror."
"I had nothing to do with her mother."
"You spoiled that wonderful smile, that lovely girl,"
said Kitty Ward. She was not speaking to her son, regard-
less of the pronoun. "I know you're lying."
"Well, there's no proof that I am or that I'm not. I'm
sure Judy wouldn't admit it, now."
For the first time in more than ten years Kitty Ward
slapped her son. "Get out of this house. Get out, and
never come back. Take your things and go away. Away,
away, away." He attempted to stare her down, to frighten
her with a silent threat of violence, but she was unafraid.
And he was afraid. He turned, left the room, and she
could hear him in his room, opening drawers, slamming
doors. Then his footsteps on the stairs, and on the front
porch. She stood at the window and watched him while
he stood at the curb. A taxi arrived and he got in, never
looking back, and the taxi drove away.
THE BIG LAUGH
She remained standing at the window. Across the
street the rich new Armenian family were putting luggage
and parcels in their Cadillac touring car. Next door the
painters were busy at the MacBrides\ Two nurses slowly
pushing prams were conversing in front of the Mac-
Brides'. To the left of the MacBrides', at the Boswicks',
good kind Amy Boswick was filling the bird-bath with wa-
ter from a sprinkling-can. There had been a dry spell.
Franklin Hubert could not find out what finally had
turned his sister against her son, but he did not inquire
very deeply. He could imagine that it was something so
awful that it shamed her to speak of it, but whatever it
was, sending Richard away had been an act of firmness.
She had made a decision and acted upon it; and deci-
sion and act had made her hold up her head again. He
was pleased to see that she was going out again, taking an
interest, having friends in for bridge, even planning a
Garden Club trip with Amy Boswick, who had been so
wonderful during the Sandy ordeal and the time Rich-
ard had his automobile accident. It just went to show
that a person can stand only so much and then you have
to begin looking out for yourself. Either that or call it
There were some unfavorable opinions of Ralph
Harding's third play, Yours for the Asking. Percy Ham-
mond said it was "less than a masterpiece" and George
Jean Nathan called it delicatessen. But for Hubert Ward
in the demanding role of Christopher there were only de-
JOHN O HARA
grees of praise. Kelcey Allen said that Mr. Ward re-
minded him of Glenn Hunter, and Alexander Woollcott
said that Hubert Ward must now be considered among
the precious few young actors in the tradition of Alfred
Lunt; sprites who could do serious drama as well as com-
edy without confusing the audience as to their intent.
Gilbert W. Gabriel did not like to think what Mr. Hard-
ing's play would be without the newcomer Hubert Ward.
One of the Broadway gossip writers said: "Recommended
to diversion-seekers: Hubert Ward as the mamma's boy
(Oedipus Complex, to you) in 'Yours for the Asking.'"
And for weeks after the first night Ward Morehouse re-
ported Hubert Ward lunching at the Algonquin or the
Hunting Room of the Astor, or simply at Frankie &
Johnny's or in the after- theater crowd at Tony's. The New
Yorker ran a piece about Hubert Ward in its Talk of the
Town department, in which Mr. Ward related some of
his non- theatrical activities; he had been a deckhand on
freighters, surveyor in South America, life guard at Rock-
away Beach, art student in Paris. He had never intended
to be an actor but had thought of becoming a playwright
and after making a few suggestions to Martin Ruskin, the
producer had persuaded him to accept a part in The
Jumping Jack. He was born, he told the New Yorker in-
terviewer, in Denver, Colorado, son of a retired army offi-
cer. He attended Exeter for three years, then left school
to go to sea. He was of course pleased by the critical ac-
claim, but was not sure he wanted to stay in the theater.
He had refused all offers from Hollywood, and would
continue to refuse them. "I want to get out and see more
THE BIG LAUGH
of the world," he said. The interviewer commented on
Hubert Ward's apartment in Sheridan Square. "I read a
lot," Mr. Ward told the interviewer. "I'm a great admirer
of Rodin, and if I had more money I'd collect ivory." The
New Yorker concluded that Mr. Ward would soon be able
to fill his apartment with ivory.
A few nights after the interview appeared Hubert
Ward was in Tony's and the New Yorker man came in.
"Ward, you're a phony son of a bitch," said the reporter.
"We got twenty-five letters about you. You're from Mont-
clair, or some place over that way. And all the rest you
gave me was crap, sheer crap."
"You fell for it."
"I fell for it, but I just wanted to tell you, you're a
phony son of a bitch."
"What are you going to do? Sue me?"
"No, I think I'll tweak your nose."
"See this bottle of club soda? You touch my nose and
I'll break this over your skull."
A waiter spoke up. "Now, now, now, now, now. Gen-
tlemens, gentlemens. Not in here. He's drunk, Mr. Ward."
"He's not that drunk. Throw him out."
"Well, I don't throw him out, but come on now, Mr.
Parrish. Don't make any more trouble now. Mister Par-
rish, behave you'self ."
"Crap. All crap."
"My dear fellow, I heartily agree with you. Most
heartily." The newcomer was a short man with a deep
voice and an English accent to go with his tweeds and
JOHN O HARA
the Malacca stick that hung by a thong from his wrist.
"Do me the honor of joining me, Parrish old boy."
"You don't think I ought to tweak this phony's nose."
"Under the circumstances, no."
"Hey, Ward. What did Rodin ever write?" said Par-
"Quite," said the man with the accent. "Now come
with me, Parrish."
But most of Hubert Ward's encounters with press
and public were conducted without friction. There had
been no interviews after The Jumping Jack, but people
who had met him during that period now claimed old
acquaintance. He had some letters from people who re-
membered him from Denver, who had known his father,
Colonel Ward; who remembered him at Exeter when his
name was Johnny Trapnell; who had known him in Paris
when he was living with an English girl called Joyce
Paternoster. In spite of the fact that he was not yet and
contractually could not be the star of Yours for the Ask-
ing, it was his picture that got in the papers and not Eliza-
beth Vandermeer's. That old trouper could have played
tricks on him, but the cleverest trick she played was to be
graciously cooperative onstage and generous in her state-
ments to the press about this boy, this find. Before the
play had finished its run it belonged to her again: the
critics and the feature writers were calling attention to
the quiet strength of her acting. An anonymous writer on
Vanity Fair declared that the veteran actress (upper
right) gave one of the most satisfying performances in the
THE BIG LAUGH
current theater, which had been overlooked in the en-
thusiasm for young Hubert Ward ( lower right) .
Her best performance, as is frequently the case, was
in her dressing room, where she played the kindly pro-
fessional to Hubert's tyro. She intimidated him by being
graciously cooperative where he had been warned to ex-
pect trouble, and after every performance he would knock
on her door, have a cigarette with her, and ask how he
had been that night. "You were good," she would say. "I
have no suggestions. Just don't think too much about the
play when you should be relaxing. Long runs are not an
unmixed blessing when you're young," and he would go
out gratefully, full of respect for an elderly woman who
had an old Rolls-Royce town car waiting to take her home
to her little house on Sutton Place. She had never offered
to give him a lift, never invited him to her house, and of
course he had never heard her describe him as a male
ingenue. Only her husband had heard her say, "Master
Ward is a little shitheel who'd better get in the movies
before the people get wise to him."
On the closing night of the play Hubert Ward in-
vited her to his party in the back room at Tony's. "Thank
you, my dear, but opening night or closing night, I always
go straight home." She went straight home — to her own
party, which was attended by her friends the Lunts, Wooll-
cott, Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic, Noel Cow-
ard, Beatrice Lillie, Alice Duer Miller, Philip Barry, Ina
Claire, Jack Gilbert, Marc Connelly, Deems Taylor, the
Damrosches, Jascha Heifetz, Conde Nast, Carmel Snow,
William Lyon Phelps, Charles Hanson Towne, Walter
JOHN O HARA
Prichard Eaton, Sidney Howard, Elisabeth Marbury, Ger-
ald and Sara Murphy, Neysa McMein and John Barag-
wanath, and the Edgar Scotts from Philadelphia. "Not a
one of them will ask me what it was like to have Master
Ward sitting on my lap for a hundred and thirty-two per-
formances," she told her husband.
"All I can say is they'd better not," he replied.
"Oh, I wouldn't forget that I'm a lady," she said. "Al-
though I'm not going to let Conde get away with calling
me a veteran. Veteran?"
Two days after her party and Hubert Ward's he was,
as they said, poured on the Twentieth Century Limited.
He had a contract with Paramount, and even before he
arrived in Pasadena he was becoming accustomed to
the designation: "Hubert Ward, New York stage actor."
It took him two or three weeks to realize that the designa-
tion was not intended as a compliment. In Hollywood it
was only an identification, so that he would not be con-
fused with writers, directors, cameramen, associate super-
visors, hair-doers, film cutters, second-unit men, press
agents and other such personnel. "Hubert Ward, New
York stage actor" he would remain until the studio took
up his first option.
"Yow tell me what he's got. I wish you would please
do me that favor. When I look at him I don't see a Wally
Reid, a Charley Ray. I don't see no Dick Barthelmess.
Those boys come across to me like typical American boys,
typical, and don't bother me with gossip stories. I know
all them gossip stories and I don't care. Just as long as
THE BIG LAUGH
the public has a different opinion. But you know what I
see when I look at this young fellow? I see a young fellow
that if I look at him quick, I'd hire him to pose for Arrow
collars. I see stills with him in them and I think to myself,
a dime-a-dozen pretty boy and why does New York go
to all this expense, railroad fares and all, not to mention
putting him on salary as soon as he closes in some Broad-
way play. Why do they do that when I can send a man to
Catalina some Sunday and he'll bring back twelve gross
of these dime-a-dozeners? But then I take a look at this
young fellow in the rushes. This morning, ten o'clock, I
walked over and took a look at the rushes. With all the
takes there was about eighteen and a half minutes of film.
But I didn't get out of the projection room till a quartera
twelve noon. You know why? Because I had them run-
ning take after take, over and over again. For what? Be-
cause I seen another Charley Ray? Another Dick Barthel-
mess? A Wally Reid? Like hell. I wish I did. This fellow
looks like one of your typical American boy types — till
you get him before a motion-picture camera. Then you
know what happens? Evil. E, v, i, 1, evil. Bill Powell.
Stroheim. Who else have we got that you always want to
see him suffer? Well, you get the idea. He's gonna rape a
sweet little innocent girl like Lillian Gish. Mae Marsh.
Not your Louis Wolheim heavy. An officer. That's it! An
officer! This young fellow is an officer, and maybe he
knocks up Mae Marsh or anyway he foists his attentions
on her, but is he gonna get it in the end? You want to see
him in agony, he's gonna get it, the dirty son of a bitch.
JOHN O HARA
And now we got sound, you can hear him begging for
"Why is this? Ill tell you why. Because the average
person, they're gonna take a look at this young fellow and
they're gonna trust him, because they think right away, a
clean-cut typical American boy. But the first thing you
know, they're gonna get the same feeling I got. I don't
trust him. He's what I call shifty-eyed. He can't look you
straight in the face because he's a shifty-eyed fellow.
That's the feeling I get, and that's the feeling the Ameri-
can audience are gonna get. Therefore I decided it's too
late to make any changes in this picture. I won't hold up
production on this one. But I want you to find a story or
get a couple of our contract writers — not the highest
priced, but not the cheapest — and put them to work on
a story. I tell you the kind of a story I want. What's his
name again? Ward? Herbert? Hubert Ward. Hubert
Ward is a young fellow comes to this typical American
town. He meets say Mary Brian. Pretty, innocent, good
respectable family and maybe George Bancroft for her
father. Or maybe we put it down South and let Miriam
Hopkins play the daughter. Anyway, Herbert Ward
comes to town and starts monkeying around with Mary
Brian. She gets knocked up and Herbert deserts her in
her condition. How we're ever gonna get this by the Hays
Office I don't know, but we can skirt around as much as
we can. What I want is to see this young fellow get his just
deserts. I want to see George Bancroft give him a good
beating. Kick the living shit out of the son of a bitch.
Maybe Mary's really in love with Phil Holmes, her child-
THE BIG LAUGH
hood sweetheart. I don't know. I just thought of this idea
during lunch, but I'm convinced. If we can make the
American audience hate this young fellow enough, he
could turn into an American Stroheim. A clean-cut heavy.
That would be revolutionary, and the foreign market
would eat it up. They're always complaining about our
stories, we'll give them something sophisticated, and at
the same time hold on to our American audience. That's
what I want to do with Herbert Ward, and the first thing
we do is take up his option before some other son of a
bitch can get hold of him and make him another Dick
Barthelmess. Once this young fellow gets the hero
build-up they'd be crazy to try to turn him into a heavy,
but we have him and we can make him anything we
Hiram J. Zimmermann was delighted to discover that
Hubert Ward did not have to be sold the idea of playing
a heavy; he wanted to play a heavy. It gave him a better
chance to act, and he readily agreed with Hiram J. Zim-
mermann that the public soon tired of dime-a-dozen
typical American boy types. He was not always going
to confine his acting to Hollywood, and when he returned
to the New York stage he did not want Eugene O'Neill and
authors like that to think of him as a Hollywood pretty boy.
The screenplay by Martha Kensington, Joseph Hutchinson
MacDuffie, and Ted Fenstermacher, with additional dia-
logue by J. Frank Youngblood and Sara Jaffe Winston,
based on an original story by Martha Kensington and
Joseph Hutchinson MacDuffie, was rumored to be an
entirely new departure for Hollywood, as realistic as any-
JOHN O HARA
thing Theodore Dreiser had written, and was likely
to end Hollywood's dependence on plays and novels
as the bases for scenarios. For that reason the in-
dustry momentarily suspended the usual advance judg-
ment of the picture, and the opening at Graumann's
Egyptian attracted writers as well as the usual executives
and stars, in a kind of remote defiance of Fourth Avenue,
the Algonquin, Broadway, Sardi's, and all the rest of those
New York book-and-theater snobs. After the Hollywood
opening — that same night, immediately after — there was
a meeting of executives at which it was decided to spend
an additional $60,000 on advertising and publicity, but
the realistic fact was that Dreiser and O'Neill had nothing
to worry about. The picture opened on a Friday morn-
ing at the New York Paramount, and on the following
Tuesday the house was half empty in spite of Waring's
Pennsylvanians and George Dewey Washington for the
stage presentation. The picture had cost about $400,000
and did not lose money — few pictures did — but Hiram J.
Zimmermann was not given Nancy Carroll for his next
picture, and with that strong hint thrown at him he set-
tled his contract and moved to another studio. The only
considerable gainer from the picture was Hubert Ward.
Hiram J. Zimmermann: "Where I made my mistake,
who the hell can predict what women are going to like,
I ask you? Women. You ask the average man in the audi-
ence how he feels about Hubert Ward and the answer
you get is they don't like him and they don't dislike him.
Whereas the women will come right out and tell you
they don't like him, but that don't stop them from want-
THE BIG LAUGH
ing to pay fifty-fi' cents to see him in a picture. Here you
got a genuine paradox where they can dislike an actor,
and I was right on that. But they don't want him done
away with. The women that go for this young fellow,
which is about fifty percent of your audience, not all, they
don't trust him, they know he's a wrong bozo, but they
don't want him done away with. It's the hooker in every
woman, with very few exceptions. If they could sneak
him in through the kitchen door, they would. And that's
where this young fellow is gonna make his play. He'll
never be big like Jack Gilbert was big with Garbo. If I
had Garbo I'd never team her up with Hubert Ward,
that'd be a waste of Garbo. Garbo you want real old-
fashioned romantic love stories, and the women wouldn't
want Garbo to end up with this young fellow. They
wouldn't be pulling for him and her to end up together.
I know plenty of women that would shoot you if you said
they were queer, but you get them started on Garbo
and I think some of them are queer without knowing it.
And they don't want a fellow like Hubert Ward anywhere
near Garbo. But he'll draw. You know what he is? He's
perfect supporting. I'd always put him in with two big
stars and I bet you'd find out that the women went to see
him. Maybe they wouldn't admit it, but he's the one
they'd go to see in preference to the big stars. He'll be
working till he's sixty-five years of age, the son of a bitch.
Nothing's gonna stop him. But he'll never be able to
carry a picture by himself. Never."
It would not have been an auspicious debut for most
actors. Indeed careers had begun and ended for other
JOHN O HARA
New York actors and actresses with only one such box-
office disappointment. But Starstruck, Hiram J. Zimmer-
mann's last picture at Paramount and Hubert Ward's
second picture anywhere, had been produced in an at-
mosphere of Art. Zimmermann had seen to it that the
industry was told over and over again that this was going
to be a different picture, that the industry had to be
proud of it. The highbrow critics — Sherwood, Cohen,
Watts, and Lorentz — were tipped off to expect a differ-
ent, an artistic picture, from Hollywood this time. The
boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl formula was to
be abandoned. Willy Gropertz, the terrific German direc-
tor, was to be given a free hand, and the critics were pri-
vately advised to look for Gropertz touches in certain love
scenes that were being sneaked past the Hays Office. The
industry and the critics dutifully commented on Zimmer-
mann's courage and Gropertz's naughty subtleties; there
was a great deal of in-the-know writing which had to re-
main obscure to the lay reader because Gropertz em-
ployed several phallic symbols, the slightest mention of
which was impossible in family publications. (One seem-
ingly innocent scene had the girl shyly caressing a pillar
on her front porch as Hubert Ward spoke the seductive
words of J. Frank Youngblood and Sara Jaffe Winston.)
For these and other reasons the picture was different.
Willy Gropertz went back to Germany, and Hiram J. Zim-
mermann moved out to Universal, but Starstruck became
one of those pathetically numerous films by which unar-
tistic people hoped to buy artistic recognition. Gropertz
was especially bitter because five months after he told the
THE BIG LAUGH
ship news reporters that he was convinced that Holly-
wood was sincerely interested in Art, he was homeward
bound and telling the same ship news reporters that Hol-
lywood shtunk. In Hollywood, he said, an artist could not
breet, which confused the reporters until they realized
he was saying breathe, not breed.
Nevertheless Starstruck was significantly helpful to
the career of Hubert Ward. His first important picture
had been an Art job, instead of a horse opera, a prison
epic, a campus cutups film, or a Cecil B. DeMille specta-
cle. He moved right into Hollywood Society, a curious
combination of the powerful, the able, the glamorous,
and, among the males, the wearers of the Brooks Brothers
shirt. The actor or writer who continued to get his shirts
by mail from Brooks after beginning to make movie
money was somehow considered to be well connected
socially back East, and in some cases he was. But Hubert
Ward's connections with Eastern Society were remote. He
had an uncle who belonged to the University Club, but
he was not on speaking terms with Franklin Hubert. His
mother belonged to a suburban New Jersey country club.
His brother-in-law belonged to the Essex Troop. But those
relatives of his late father, who might have been consid-
ered Good People by a New York society editor, were frost-
ily indifferent to his existence. Hollywood Society, how-
ever, took him up without any investigation of their own
claims for him. They appeared to like what he was not:
he was not unemployed, he was not from Los Angeles, he
was not a Latin or a Jew (the older Jews in Hollywood
Society rebuffed younger Jews, even their own children,
JOHN O HARA
who were old enough to go to parties), he was not a booze
artist, he stayed out of the gambling that he could not
afford; he was not actorish; he was not pugnacious; he
would be miscast in a gangster part. On the positive side
he was making pretty good money, he was of the theater,
he had been given good notices in an Art picture, he was
not confused by an oyster fork, he stood up when ladies
entered the room, he danced reasonably well, he could
read sheet music, he seemed ready to please, he was
clean and dressed Eastern. Nearly all these new friends
had themselves come to California in fairly recent years,
but back East they had seldom known the type of young
man they considered Hubert Ward to be, and they were
eager to forget the hoofers and sharpies and pitchmen
and shipping clerks and prizefighters and truck drivers
and stool-pigeons and seminarians and rabbinical stu-
dents and epileptics who were the young men they had
known in their various pasts. This Hubert Ward seemed
affable, but he was not liable to antagonize people with
a sense of humor or to make them uncomfortable with a
lot of serious intellectual stuff. He won many friends with
his disarmingly candid answer to a question about what
it was like to work with Willy Gropertz. "I wouldn't have
missed it for the world," he said. "But sometime I'd like
to see the picture with him and have him explain to me
what I was doing half the time."
In this company he was careful never to be contemp-
tuous or patronizing of the industry. He revealed a genu-
ine curiosity about the camera and the art of cutting, and
when someone commented that he was learning the ar-
THE BIG LAUGH
got quickly he said, truthfully enough, that some day he
wanted to direct pictures, but only after he had learned a
lot more than he knew now. In this company he could not
have made a more generally flattering statement, and
they returned the courtesy by saying that he had a lot
of good acting to do before the public would let him turn
He became a fixture in this group: he went to their
Thursday and Sunday dinner parties, their Sunday lunch-
eons, their beach and tennis parties. On his second Christ-
mas in Hollywood he was astonished by the number and
costliness of the presents they gave him, for which he
was unprepared, having already sent out his English
coach-at-the-inn cards to people who sent him gold-
clipped billfolds, gold cufflinks, gold cigarette lighters,
gold pencils, invariably from Brock's; and scarves, dress-
ing-gowns, and other haberdashery, invariably from Pes-
terre's. He wrote a note of thanks for each of these gifts,
and so unaccustomed were the donors to any such ges-
ture that they apologized for the insignificance of the gifts.
Among themselves they remarked that Hubie Ward was a
real gentleman; you could always tell; he had class.
But he was not altogether happy with his status in
the group: he noticed that when the men were having
their cigars after dinner he was not expected to enter the
conversation unless asked a specific question. The men
were apt to be friendlier with him when women were
present than in an all-male gathering. In due course he
figured out the reason: he was the only man who was not
an important executive, top director, or top-billing star.
JOHN O H AR A
He was a junior officer in a senior officers' mess, as surely
as though they all wore insignia of rank. He was making
good money, he was appearing in high-budget pictures,
but his name was not yet appearing on top of the titles of
the pictures. He was now twenty- three years old, young
for this group but not too young for top billing. He was
getting to be known all over the world — he actually had
a Japanese fan club, which sent him Japanese fans. He
had a comfortable suite in an apartment hotel on North
Rossmore; a Lincoln convertible coupe; and nearly $70,-
000 cash in two banks. But he was not yet being taken
seriously by the important industry figures whose houses
he went to for dinner. It was annoying because he did not
know what to do about it. His contract had another year
to run, and the billing terms were stated in it. The studio
could change the billing voluntarily, but he could not
demand a change.
He had a talk with his agent, Jack Golsen, who shook
his head. "Sooner or later you want to stir up a hornets'
nest, and with actors it's always the billing. Here you got
a contract that at the present moment you're in the
fifteen-hundred-a-week phase. No layoffs. You get paid
whether you work or you're off nuzzling up to some broad
at Malibu. You got fifteen years ahead of you before
you're forty years of age, and you don't look to me like
you're the type that puts on the blubber. You got straight
yearly options for two more years, so why stir up a hor-
nets' nest, Hubie? Two years from now, granted we rene-
gotiate, and you bet your sweet ass we do renegotiate. But
THE BIG LAUGH
leave sleeping dogs, Hubie. Go away and don't bother
me, will you like a good fellow?"
"No. I made five pictures since Starstruck without
any change in billing. Do you know I got a fan club in — "
"Aw, now don't give me that fan club. Or the studio
either. The studio organized the fan club."
"In Tokyo, Japan?"
"In Tokyo, Japan. In Manchester, England. In Pratt
Falls, New York. In Pottsville, Pottstown, and Chambers-
burg. Get wise to yourself, Hubie. A live- wire exhibitor
can organize a fan club for John Wilkes Booth, if he wants
to take the trouble, so don't give me fan clubs. Why do
you want better billing? Who put that fig up your ass?"
"Nobody did. I think I'm entitled to it."
"Listen, Hubie, believe me, things are going nice be-
tween you and the studio. You stir up a hornets' nest
and you be surprised how uncomfortable they can make
it for you. They put you in nothing but high-budget pic-
tures with the biggest stars in the world, but there's noth-
ing in the contract that says they can't put you in low-
budgets with some dying swan. One big credit after an-
other and two years from now I can talk to them. I can
talk about a lot of things, billing amongst them. Money.
Billing. Time off between pictures and et cetera."
"Selection of stories?"
"No. Don't get that in your noggin, either. I'd rather
you get somebody else to handle you before I'll try to
get you selection of stories. You know who has that? No-
body. No studio will stand for that, not from a contract
player. So if that's what you're leading up to, Hubie, for-
JOHN O HARA
get it. I'll tell you here and now, I won't fight that battle
for you or anybody else, because when I go to renegotiate
I want to have a chance of winning. I'm in business, too,
you know. I think what you need is a good piece of tail,
something new that's maybe hard to get. Maybe you
ought to get married, I don't know. Redecorate your
apartment. I got my sister-in-law that will do it cheap.
Redecorate, I mean. The other you wouldn't be interested.
Maybe you ought to take a trip. New York, you never
been back there since you come to Hollywood. The Is-
lands. A trip on the Lurline. You ever been to Tia Juana?
Buy yourself a new car. Spend some money for a change.
A high colonic. You ever had a high colonic? Take up
golf. What you need is something different, Hubie. You're
chafing at the bit, through sheer boredom. I know two
Chinese broads that would give you an entire new per-
spective. You want me to fix you up with them? I give
them a call about once or twice a year when I want to be
"Mary and Nancy Lee? I know them."
"Well, then all my other suggestions, but don't bother
me with billing till two years hence. Show you what a
good fellow I am, I'll take you to lunch. Levy's okay?"
If star billing had been the real cause of his discon-
tent he would have fought for it — and stood a good
chance of winning. But billing was not his trouble, nor
even the after-dinner behavior of the Hollywood powers.
He did not particularly want to choose his own stories;
he knew without Jack Golsen's telling him that he had no
chance of gaining that concession, and he was at least
THE BIG LAUGH
honest enough to admit to himself that acting was no
more than a reasonably easy, satisfactory way of earning
a pleasant living. Motion picture acting was the easiest,
most satisfactory way of earning an extremely pleasant
living, not to be compared with acting on the stage. In
pictures the hours were longer, but he was not required
to learn 120 pages of dialog, and if he made a mistake it
could be corrected, and it was corrected. Between pic-
tures there was loafing in the California sun; swimming,
tennis, and even a half-hearted attempt to play polo; and
the variety of acquiescent women who came to the North
Rossmore apartment should have staved off boredom.
Nevertheless boredom had begun to set in, and the list of
suggestions Jack Golsen had made to offset it was rather
like the cures Hubert Ward had considered for himself,
differing somewhat in detail but similar in character.
He went down to Malibu for the weekend of his
twenty-fifth birthday, telling no one that it was his birth-
day because he wanted no fuss and because it empha-
sized the difference in age between him and the power-
ful. By his early standards he was rich, and by any
standards he was famous, but by the standards of the
powerful he was young and not very rich. And he was as
bored as anyone of any age.
On this weekend he was the house guest of Charles
and Mildred Simmons (ne Simon). Charley Simmons at
forty-two was one of the six or seven most powerful execu-
tives in the industry and he had made it on his own, to
the extent that he was not related to any of the industry
JOHN O HARA
families. He had got into the business through his ability
as a junior partner in a New York law firm, pushed and
fought his way past the illiterates in several studios, and
now was vice-president in charge of production at U. S.
Films, Incorporated, which was in the business of mak-
ing films rather than the business of supplying films for a
theater chain. His wife had been his secretary during his
lawyer days. They had a son at Lawrence ville and two
daughters, who were attending a Catholic day school in
Los Angeles. It was said of Mildred Simmons that she was
half of Charley's brains, which was a complimentary ex-
aggeration based on the actual fact that he discussed —
"thought out loud" — every business move with her, as at
one time he had discussed law cases with her. She sat in
on the high-stakes poker games with the men, won fairly
consistently, lost infrequently and in small amounts. She
was a statuesque Jewess, a good two inches taller than her
husband, strikingly homely as to face, but proud of her
figure and extravagant in clothing it. There was not a
man in the group who had not at some time sounded her
out on an experiment in adultery; some of them had been
drunk, some had been completely sober, but she had had
more propositions than many of the famous beauties who
came to her house, and when Hubert Ward as a newcomer
to the group proceeded on the mistaken notion that he
had seen possibilities that others had overlooked, she put
him forever in his place. "Little boy, maybe 111 send for
you some time I want you to scrub my back/' she said.
"Only don't count on it." But Hubert Ward had not made
a mistake in inviting her to his apartment. She had be-
THE BIG LAUGH
come so accustomed to drunken and sober invitations to
fornicate that she questioned the virility of any man who
failed to proposition her, "I personally know he's a fag,"
she would say, if a man did not show interest after a rea-
sonable length of time. Other women were afraid of her,
since they could not discover any points of vulnerability.
She made jokes about her face — "Alongside of me Fanny
Brice is Rosamond Pinchot" — and made jokes about other
women's figures. They could not gossip about her con-
duct, and they could not hurt her through Charley, who
was above temptation and always left his office door open
while conversing with a female star. She was, moreover, a
terrible enemy for any woman to have: ruthlessly vindic-
tive, sporadically witty, and as the only female regular in
the men's poker games she had their ear and attention at
least once a week. She was not the social leader of the
group; no woman was; it was basically and essentially a
male Society, a fact which always seemed strange to those
onlookers who did not know about the comparable male
domination of Society in Eastern cities where the men de-
cided who would — and would not — be invited to mem-
bership in the cotillions, assemblies, balls, germans, and
dancing-classes that separated the ins from the outs. In
this Hollywood group the women spent the money and
competed in the niceties of the entertainment, but no man
or woman was admitted against male opposition. On the
other hand, the women were sometimes influential in hav-
ing an individual dropped, and therein lay Mildred Sim-
mons's power. She could relay — or withhold — female gos-
JOHN O HARA
sip that the men might not otherwise hear, and she could
Hubert Ward amused her. Since he had not achieved
full comradeship with the men, he spent a great deal of
time in conversations with her, and they amused each
other. He talked to her as he would have talked to the men,
and she listened with lubricious attention to his descrip-
tions of adventures with women. In time he found that
this was expected of him, and he did not fail her. The
girls and women were not likely to be friends or even
acquaintances of Mildred's; she strictly observed the caste
system of the industry, which meant that she associated
only with wives on her own executive level and the
actresses — stars, featured players — who belonged to her
group. But this did not prevent her from acquiring a movie
fan's knowledge of minor stars and featured actors and
bit players. In the projection room in her house in Beverly
Hills she saw pictures three or four nights a week, and
sometimes she would nudge Hubert Ward and whisper, "Is
she the one you took on the boat?" Or "Is he the one that
has a girl on Central Avenue?"
They would talk together and laugh together, and
the married women in their group, who did not have to
guess how he amused her, soon gave up any thought of
casual dalliance with Hubert Ward. Among these men and
women divorce was infrequent; it was costly not only by
reason of the community property laws, but because it
could mean radical realignments of interfamily, intra-
industry connections. A director's wife was not only the
wife of a director; she was the sister of the production
THE BIG LAUGH
head of a studio, and quite possibly the first cousin of
the chairman of the finance committee at another studio.
Divorce, with a consequent redistribution of voting stock,
was as calamitous as death. The women got the jewelry,
but the men held on to their shares. Not even Mildred
Simmons owned a single share of U. S. Films, Incor-
porated, nor did she expect to inherit any if Charley
The men in the group had mistresses, and some of the
women took lovers. In the group itself there had been some
— but very little — adultery, always put to a stop before it
reached the phase where it could be discussed openly. It
would be known that one Harry had seen a lot of one Joe's
wife during a trip to New York, but when Harry and Joe's
wife returned to Beverly Hills they were expected to have
got that out of their systems. Harry's family and closest
friends would see to that — and a year later Harry would
be advising one Sidney to watch his step. It was not very
different from Philadelphia, or the Court of St. James's.
The danger in an affair with a Hubert Ward was that
an actor, any actor, was always an associate member of
the group, subject to banishment. A woman whose affair
with Hubert Ward compelled her husband to divorce her
could expect rough treatment. The resources of the studio
publicity departments would be directed against her, and
she might easily be left with an actor whose box-office
appeal was not strong enough to overcome the personal
prejudice against him. It was obvious to the women that
Hubert Ward told Mildred Simmons all he knew; it was
therefore not worth the risk to have an affair with him. As
JOHN O H AR A
a result he had slept with only one woman in the group:
Ruth St. Alban, twice divorced and a full-fledged star,
who could not really see much difference between one
man and another after the first pint of champagne. She
was neither oversexed nor vicious; it was simply that cham-
pagne made her complacent and the attentions of a man
added to her complacency. She had told Mildred Simmons,
among others, that she got very little fun out of sex; Hubert
Ward, among others, had told Mildred that Ruth St. Alban
sometimes fell asleep before she should have.
With the other women Hubert Ward was polite,
agreeable, noticed new dresses and hair-dos, and com-
plimented them on the more obvious expenditures in and
about their households. He could tell them litde stories
about what went on on the set. Nearly all talk in the group
had to do with the making of motion pictures, and most
of the husbands of these women were concerned with the
financial aspects of picture-making, high fiscal policy, so
that Hubert Ward's stories provided the lighter touch in
a non-stop one-topic conversation.
The only other topic was the behavior of the stock
market, and this inevitably was related to picture-mak-
ing, film distribution, and profits and losses in the theater
chains. The caprices of the stock market never quite
matched the introduction of sound for conversational in-
terest among the group as a whole, and during the
current debate between the optimists and pessimists over
the state of the national economy, the men were gen-
erally agreed that the motion picture industry could lead
the country out of the depression. Charley Simmons dis-
THE BIG LAUGH
sented from this view, but his colleagues reminded him
that he was a lawyer, not a showman, and loud voices
were heard after several dinners. Simmons did not believe
that ten, or twenty, or fifty smash-hit movies would solve
the nation's economic problems and save the capitalistic
system, but when his colleagues demanded to know how
he would bring back prosperity, he weakly replied that he
did not know what had brought about the depression, an
answer which restored his friends' self-confidence.
"Charley," they said, "you don't know any more about it
than anybody, but you always want to be a little differ-
ent." He thus for the moment escaped being called a
traitor to his industry and his country.
But he was disturbed, baffled, and increasingly ir-
ritable as a result, and he was not looking forward to the
weekend. He saw Hubert Ward's red Lancia coming
through the wall gate, and now it was too late to invent
an excuse to go away. The weekend had begun.
It was Saturday, luncheon would be served at half-
past two, the house guests would come and go as they
pleased all afternoon; people would be dropping in from
the neighboring beach houses and driving down from
Beverly Hills and the Rossmore section. There would be
actors and actresses and directors who were kept at the
studios on Saturday afternoon. There would be letter-of-
introduction visitors from the East, come to look in on a
Hollywood revel. The staff would be serving food and
drink for the next sixteen hours. It would all be paid for
by U. S. Films, Incorporated, but it never failed to offend
Charley Simmons's sense of thrift to see so much money
JOHN O H AR A
spent on the same people, week after week, to no pur-
pose, especially since he had originally bought the Malibu
beach house to get away from those people. He realized
that it was inconsistent argument to come to Malibu to
get away from picture people, a thought that at another
time would have amused him, but in his present frame of
mind only added to his irritability. The only change at
Malibu was more people got drunker there than they did
"in town," as Beverly Hills and the old Rossmore section
were called in Malibu. Without actually deciding to do so,
Charley Simmons picked a cocktail off a passing waiter's
tray. It was a concoction of Bacardi, lemon juice, and a
dash of Pernod, so pleasant to the taste that although he
was usually a slow as well as a moderate drinker, he tossed
off two Delmonico glasses in less than fifteen minutes.
"Charley, you with a cocktail?" said Hubert Ward.
"Me with a cocktail. Don't you think I'm entitled,
"Sure. Who better?"
"That's the way I look at it. Have you had one? It's
made of Bacardi rum and it has absinthe in it. You know,
Pernod. I have a feeling they're probably stronger than
they taste, but if it knocks me on my can I won't play polo
this afternoon. Aren't you playing polo any more, Hubie?"
"Are you playing polo?"
"Christ, no, I was just kidding. That's for the goyim.
Wouldn't I look great on a horse, provided the God damn
nag would let me on in the first place. But don't you play
"I never even got to one goal, so I quit. If Will Rogers
THE BIG LAUGH
and Johnny Mack Brown want to play, that's all right.
Will was a cowboy and Johnny Mack was an all-American
football player, but the few times I played I had the shit
scared out of me. What if I got a broken nose? I'd be driv-
ing a taxi, or working as a dress extra. They wouldn't
even hire me for that if I had a broken nose."
Charley Simmons looked at him for a moment.
"Hubie, you nonplus me."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I'm nonplused. I've never been able to figure you
"There's nothing much to figure out."
"There! That's just what I mean. You don't truthfully
give a God damn about acting, do you?"
"About being a Barrymore, no. But — "
"I know. It's a good easy living. But what if you did
for instance break your nose? What would you want to
"You want to know the truth, I think I'd marry a
"You have no ambition to do anything else?"
"Direct pictures, maybe. But the directors are all
either ex-cameramen or a few writers. You wouldn't give
me a job as a director, would you?"
"Till we had this conversation, no. And tomorrow I
probably wouldn't. But today I might. You know, you have
more brains than you let on. A picture actor doesn't need
much brains, but all the same it's a shame to let your brains
go to waste, Hubie. God gives brains to very few people.
Take me, for instance. Phi Beta Kappa, C.C.N.Y., and
JOHN O HARA
Columbia Law Review. Practised law a few years, then I
got greedy. You know, this money was lying on the
ground waiting for me to pick it up. But it's not gonna be
as easy as it was. I think were in for some bad times."
"You mean on account of the stock market."
"On account of what the stock market is an indicator
of. Don't ask me what caused it. It's too big a problem for
me, it's too big a problem for the trained so-called econ-
omists. They don't know either."
"Well, I'm sure I don't."
"I'm sure you don't, too, but as long as you don't
break your nose you don't have as much to worry about as
I do. You see all this? This house, the cars, the tennis
court, swimming pool, all these waiters — hey, don't be in
such a hurry, Jeeves — I want one of those Bacardis —
thanks — I was saying, all this could evaporate in less than
two years. I only make pictures, I don't have a chain of
theaters and a big corporation behind me. If I got voted
out of my job — and I could be — I doubt if I could get a
good job with one of the big studios. I made enemies, and
I'm making more every day because they don't like to hear
the facts of life. So what would I do with myself? I'm out
of touch with the law. I could be as big as Maxie Steuer
if I'd stayed in it, or a good safe judgeship, life tenure at
twenty-five, thirty thousand a year, not bad. But who the
hell wants a flop movie producer? I keep telling Mildred,
buy half as many dresses and put the money in bonds.
Then she says 'What bonds?' and I don't have an answer.
But any bond is better than two dresses at five hundred a
crack. Five hundred dollars for a dress, and Western Cos-
THE BIG LAUGH
tume won't give you thirty dollars for it. Mildred says
I'm too pessimistic."
"Well, you are, Charley."
"You're the smartest man in the business, you'll al-
ways have a good job."
"That doesn't follow. Some of the stupidest schnucks
in the business have the best jobs, and they're holding on
to them. Why? Because Uncle Moe married Aunt Reba.
You know what a shegitz is, Hubie?"
"I found out since I've been here."
"Be one. Then you don't have to worry if you break
your nose. Maybe they'll even let you direct. You know,
I think 111 go up and lie down a while. These cocktails,
and the sun, I'm not used to it." He put his hand on
Hubert Ward's shoulder. "You're all right, Hubie. You're
not a bad fellow."
"Thanks, Charley. Neither are you."
Charley Simmons laughed. "You son of a bitch, you're
pretty fresh, though. Well, what the hell? As I said, in two
years maybe I'll be glad to come to your house." Now they
were joined by Mildred.
"Where are you going?" she said. "They'll be starting
to want lunch in a couple minutes."
"They won't miss me."
"Charley, are you drunk for God's sake?" she said.
"No, but I'm not sober, and that's a fact. I'm farther
from sober than I am from drunk, and I'm going upstairs
and lie down a while." He left.
"How many did he have?" said Mildred Simmons.
JOHN O HARA
"Two, while he was talking to me, but they weren't
the first two, I'm sure of that."
"Why didn't you stop him?"
"Oh, come on, Mildred."
"All of a sudden he gets drunk. What was he talking
"Well, he said all this could, uh, evaporate. The house
and pool and tennis court."
"Oh. And losing his job, I guess."
"The damned stock market. Do me a favor, Hubie,
and don't go around repeating this. You know how those
"Oh, hell, Mildred, he didn't say anything he hasn't
"I know, but he's saying it too often. He's giving him-
self a black eye, all this pessimism. The important men
don't like to hear Charley Simmons talking that way. It
gets back to New York. And now getting plastered,
Charley Simmons never gets plastered."
"He's not so bad. He'll sleep it off."
"I wish I thought so. Not just the getting drunk. As a
friend of mine, did you ever hear any gossip about
"Women? No. Never."
"You said it awful quick."
"I didn't even have to think. I never heard a word.
In fact, the opposite. Charley is one man in this business
you never hear that about. It's the stock market, and los-
ing his job. And the sun and cocktails."
THE BIG LAUGH
"Well, I don't know. I wouldn't mind so much if he
played around a little. It gets offered him on a silver plat-
ter every day, and they're weak, men. It may be on his
mind without him knowing it."
"You're wrong about that, Mildred. I'm sure of it.
I'd have heard rumors by this time, a man as big as
Charley. And you know who'd start the rumors?"
"Right. If a woman was Charley Simmons's girl
friend she'd like people to know about it, in Hollywood."
"That kind of a woman, I wouldn't mind. Or like Ruth
St. Alban. But Charley could have had much prettier girls
than me, and with money. That's what makes me think if
it's a woman, it wouldn't have to be one of these picture
"You're getting yourself all worked up over nothing.
Man is worried about business and takes a few cocktails."
"I wouldn't let him get away with it. I get proposi-
tioned all the time, and if he thinks I'm just gonna sit and
take it, I'm entitled to some fun."
"I never thought I'd try to argue a man's wife out of
cheating on him, but I am."
"You tried to argue me into it one time. Maybe I
should of given you a different answer."
"You said I could scrub your back. I never thought
much of that idea."
"Maybe you'd be surprised how quickly I could turn
He said nothing.
"What are you thinking?" she said.
JOHN O HARA
He slowly lit a cigarette, blew out smoke before he
spoke. "How soon are you going to start lunch?"
"Five or ten minutes."
"Then after lunch, what?"
"I don't know."
"You shouldn't start something you're not willing
to finish, Mildred."
"Did I start something?"
"Yes. I started it with myself, too. After lunch you
go on up to your room. I'll be there as soon as I can."
"You wouldn't rather drive into town with me?"
"Here is better. I'll meet you, and then 111 go and
change my dress. That's what they'll think I went upstairs
"But you're going to change more than your dress, Mil-
"I know, but now I made up my mind."
His boredom vanished, the memory of it vanished.
Their private conversations after so many dinner parties
had in the beginning excited him, then had ceased to ex-
cite him but had given him a larger understanding of
her, which created a curiosity that was active without
titillation. For several years now they had conducted an
artificial relationship, man-to-man conversations between
a man and a suppressed woman, and the inevitability of
what was about to happen made the conversations seem
like preparation. He waited in his room for her, and when
she came in she made straight for the windows and low-
ered the shades.
THE BIG LAUGH
"Who'll see us? The sea gulls?" he said.
"Too much light," she said. "Another five minutes and
I'd have made a pass at Eric."
"He'd have fainted."
"The worst of it was he was talking dirty all through
lunch. As if I needed anybody to remind me. Unhook me."
She made all the first moves, and they were thought
out and well timed, none of it as though this was their first
adventure together. She did not speak until they had fin-
ished, and then she said, "How was I?"
"Wonderful," he said, rather surprised by the ques-
"Now you know what you've been missing."
"That wasn't my fault."
"It wasn't anybody's fault." She lay back and looked
at the silver-starred ceiling. "You want to know some-
thing? Every man in our bunch tried to make me. All ex-
cept Eric, and he doesn't count. You got what they all
wanted, does that flatter you?"
"Well, be more enthusiastic, for God's sake. The next
time is your apartment. Charley has to go to New York
maybe the week after next. If he got good and drunk
maybe I could sneak in tonight — but no. No. Week after
next, the whole night. You're quite a man, Hubie."
"What the hell did you expect?"
"Not as good. I feel wonderful, I hate to leave. But
in an hour they'd miss us, and we don't want to spoil this.
This is a laugh, getting all dressed again just to go down
the hall. Hook me, will you?"
JOHN O H AR A
No one missed them, in any case no one among
their intimates would have suspected anything after the
years of their tete-a-tetes. His reputation was that of any
heterosexual young bachelor in the industry, which as-
sumed as custom the right to have as many women as he
wanted, so long as public scandal could be avoided. The
men in the power group did not trust him with their
wives or mistresses or with important actresses for whom
they had publicity plans. But Hubert Ward, though un-
trusted, was believed to prefer the more obscure actresses
and completely unknown younger girls, and to be clever
enough to protect his associate membership in the group.
He slept for an hour, then returned to wander among the
guests at the pool.
There were perhaps ten young children in and about
the pool. They were of various ages from five to twelve, the
youngest in the shallow end and on up to the oldest who
were going off the elevated diving-board. Hubert Ward
cared nothing about children, but he could identify all
those who were swimming, with one exception: an ex-
tremely blonde girl, seven or eight years old, who was
a stranger not only to him but obviously to most of the
other children. The Simmons daughters, who were ten and
twelve and fully aware of their father's standing in the
industry, came up to Hubert Ward and said, "Hello, Mr.
Ward. Do some dives."
"Hello, Wendy. Hello, Charlene, ,, he said.
"Will you? Will you do some dives?"
"I will if you'll stay out of the way."
"We will. We'll make the other kids stay down at the
THE BIG LAUGH
shallow end." The Simmons sisters officiously directed the
children to the far end of the pool, and Hubert Ward
slowly climbed to the higher board. This was one of the
things he was good at. The board was not of champion-
ship height, but it was high enough to repel most of the
guests who swam at the Simmonses' pool. He walked out
and tested the springiness of the board, waited until the
hum of conversation was noticeably diminished, and be-
gan with a swan dive, then performed a satisfactory jack-
knife, and followed it with a one-and-a-half gainer. Ap-
plause followed each dive, but after these and his earlier
exertions, climbing the platform ladder was too much for
him and he called to the Simmons children, "That's all.
He took a high-pile towel off the stack near the plat-
form, and went to an umbrella table where there were
cigarettes in a crystal box. A young woman was sitting
alone at the table and she held up a lighter to his ciga-
rette. "Congratulations. Those were nice dives," she said.
"Thank you," he said. "I don't think I've met you."
"You haven't. I'm Mrs. Stephens, and of course I
know your name."
"Mind if I sit down?"
"Please do. I don't know anybody here, and I haven't
spoken a word for two hours."
"How do you happen to be here?"
"That towhead is my daughter. We're staying with
the Barleys, and Mr. and Mrs. Simmons very kindly let
the Barley children and my youngster come over for a
JOHN O HARA
"Yes, I know the Barley children. I don't know Mr.
and Mrs. Barley except to say hello to."
"The twain never does meet, does it? Movie people
"Not very much."
"But at least now I'll be able to go home and say I
met one movie star."
"You could have met as many as you wanted to if
you'd been staying some place else, but the Barleys — "
"Josephine Barley is my sister."
"Thanks, then I won't say what I was going to say."
"I didn't think you would. This way I miss hearing
what you people think of my sister and her friends, but I
guess it isn't hard to imagine."
"No, it shouldn't be. Where is home, Mrs. Stephens?"
"Chicago. Outside of Chicago."
"Here we call that 'back East.' "
"Yes, even Josephine does. My sister. I should know,
but are you a native son?"
"Lord, no. I'm back-Easter than you are. Where I
come from you're out West. Northern New Jersey."
"My husband went to Princeton, but I've never really
spent much time in New Jersey."
"What does your husband do?"
"He was in the printing business, but he died a year
ago. Died in an aeroplane accident. You may have read
about it, a transport plane accident in Michigan. My hus-
band and sixteen others."
"I remember. Tragic. Is that your only child?"
"Yes. She's nearly seven."
THE BIG LAUGH
"She's a beautiful child. Coloring."
"I suppose she'll get darker. Children as fair as she is
usually do. But don't let me keep you, Mr. Ward. You
have your friends, and I think those children must be
waterlogged by this time."
"Oh, I'm enjoying myself."
"Are you? I am, but I don't think you are. Do you
work terribly hard?"
"Not really. Why?"
"You only did three dives, but you seem very tired."
"I'm not tired, Mrs. Stephens. I'm just God damn
bored. Not at this moment, but when you leave I will be."
"Bored? At your age? Twenty-five? Twenty-six?"
"Exactly twenty-five. Couldn't be more exactly."
"Then why don't you pack up and go away? Go tiger-
hunting in India or something like that. And yet — you'd
probably be just as bored there after a while. I know."
"Oh, there you are!" The voice was Mildred Sim-
mons's. "They said you were doing some dives. How do
you do, I'm Mrs. Simmons, Mrs. Charles Simmons."
"This is Mrs. Stephens, her sister is Mrs. Barley," said
The possessive hand that Mildred Simmons placed on
Hubert Ward's shoulder . . . "How do you do. It's awfully
nice of you to let us use your pool."
"Oh, we don't mind, if it gives them pleasure."
"It certainly does that, but I think they've had
enough of it for one day." The possessive hand on Hubert
JOHN O HARA
"Give my regards to your sister, Mrs. Barley. Tell her
she shouldn't be such strangers, she and Mr. Barley. They
can come over and have a dip any time, tell them."
"Oh, I think they impose enough as it is."
"Christmas they sent us — you see that rubber float?
They sent that to Charley and I for Christmas. If you're
not doing anything tonight, we're entertaining about thirty
or forty couples. You and your husband bring Josephine
"Well, thank you. I'll tell them. I have no idea what
their plans are, but I know they'll appreciate — "
"Just tell them it's nothing formal. If Dwight has his
Tux, but some of the men don't all wear Tux."
The possessive hand gripping Hubert Ward's shoul-
der. "I'll tell them. Thanks again, and goodbye, Mr. Ward.
Mrs. Simmons." She gathered the children and departed.
"Kind of a wish-washy dame," said Mildred Simmons.
"How'd you get talking to her?"
"She lit a cigarette for me."
"Oh, I know that type."
"The type that lights cigarettes?"
"That supposed to be sarcastic?"
"No, but I'll bet she's the only one here that guesses
where we were an hour ago."
"I wouldn't be surprised. Her type — she's probably
like Ruth St. Alban, only Ruth at least gets in the hay.
This one just goes around lighting cigarettes. Very sym-
bolic, if you know what I mean. Why would she guess
about us? Why do you say that?"
"Your hand on my shoulder."
THE BIG LAUGH
"Do you object to that, considering where else it
"No, but I saw her give us a quick look."
"What do we have to worry about her and her quick
looks? But you're right. Charley 'd notice that right away."
"You bet he would, and so would a lot of others. Is he
She half smiled. "He was awake, but I guess he went
back to sleep again."
"Did you put him to sleep, Mildred?"
"You might say that. He woke up when I went in the
room. And he's my husband."
"Was he wonderful?"
"He's always good. The little son of a bitch, I just
wonder who he's got. But I'll find out. He wants to know
will I go to New York with him, and I'm sure he's covering
"Do you know why he asked you to go to New York?"
"I figure because he has a girl in L. A."
"No. If you want to know what I think, I think he's
getting all worked up and he wants you with him."
"Well, he picked the wrong time, didn't he? We
can have a whole week."
"Half a week. I start shooting a week from Thursday."
"Well, okay. Tonight I was thinking, what if I said I
was going over to Marion's? We could leave here around
twelve o'clock and drive into town. If we're back here at
five, they'll still be playing cards, Charley and the others."
"What makes you want to take a chance like that?"
"I don't know. I guess because I never took a chance
JOHN O HARA
before, all the time Charley and I been married. But if he
wants to take chances, I'm getting as much fun out of it
as he is. You know, we'll be married nineteen years in Jan-
uary. January the eighth. And today it was like when I
used to live on 151st Street before we moved. I had an
Irish cop that I used to love him up in the super's closet,
in the hallway. I was a virgin when I married Charley, but
with my shape a lot of boys used to want to love me up,
and this Irish cop. Certain weeks he was on duty from four
to midnight, and I used to tell my people I was going down-
stairs to my girl friend, to help her with her homework.
When I was nineteen I started going to business and I
was with the firm when they took on Charley. After that
it was nobody but Charley, but I remembered when I
used to meet that cop. We shoulda been caught a thou-
sand times but we never were. Terence McGlatty. A no-
good Irish bastard when you stop to realize. And that sub-
way, all the way to 149th Street every night, five nights
a week. Boys. Young men. Old men. All colors, shapes and
sizes. The summertime was the worst, but the winttatime
was bad enough, because I was head over heels in love
with Charley Simmons, Mr. S. J. Feinberg's new protege."
"And you're not now?"
"Who said I'm not? But he came to the conclusion he
wanted to have a little fun? All right. 7 have a little fun.
With me it'll always be Charley. That I guarantee you.
But not revealing my age, but I have a nearly seventeen-
year-old son. You know. Maybe I ought to be thankful
to Charley for starting it. Maybe he's doing me a favor,
unbeknownst to him."
THE BIG LAUGH
Hubert Ward laughed. "You make up your mind about
a thing, and nothing can convince you otherwise. But you
haven't got a single fact to go on."
"That would stand up in court, no. But a circum-
stantial case, believe me. And woman's instinct."
"Show me the difference. What about your Mrs.
Stephens? Was that instinct or suspicions?"
"Okay. You win, I guess."
She had not won, in the sense of changing his belief
that Charley Simmons was faithful to her. But argument
was futile and, in the new circumstances, silly. If she
wanted to have an affair, and wanted to justify it by call-
ing it revenge, that was her decision. It was reassuring
to hear her say that it would always be Charley, for at the
present moment he did not like her very much. He would
go back to her again, in hours or in days, but at the mo-
ment he did not like her very much at all, and he was
glad when she wandered away to sit under another um-
brella. He sat alone, with a comfortable feeling of posses-
sion of her and of her future availability, and the certain
knowledge that in her own interests she would avoid be-
ing a troublemaker.
He told a waiter to bring him a fruit lemonade, and
he sat in the beach chair with his eyes closed and his legs
stretched out, getting the last of the afternoon sun. He
opened his eyes when a beach chair scraped the concrete
near him, but it was not the waiter; it was Charley Sim-
Charley was dressed in a white gabardine suit, black
JOHN O HARA
and white wing-tip shoes, dark blue shirt, plain white
four-in-hand necktie. He was carrying a newly lighted
cigar. " 'D you have a swim?" said Charley.
"In and out," said Hubert Ward.
"You don't get much of a view from our bedroom.
You can see Santa Monica Bay, but for instance you can't
look down and see who's in the pool." He pointed with his
cigar. "You see what I mean? Our room is set too far back
there. Mildred and I talk about using the roof of the din-
ingroom for a kind of a second-story sun porch. Wouldn't
cost only a few hundred bucks, and there's all that roof
space going to waste and obstructing the view."
"Yes, it'd make a good sun porch. And that space
does go to waste," said Hubert Ward.
The waiter brought the tall glass and stood by.
"What are you drinking, Hubie?" said Charley Sim-
"This is a fruit lemonade."
"Plain? It isn't spiked or anything?"
"If it is, it goes back. I'm not much of a drinker."
"I'm not either, but — waiter, give me something like
Mr. Ward's drink only with Bacardi rum in it."
"This is pretty sweet, Charley. Why don't you let him
fix you a Tom Collins made of rum?"
"All right. Bring me that, waiter. A Tom Collins made
with Bacardi rum."
"Yes sir." The waiter departed.
"I was asleep and Mildred came in to change her
dress. We had a few minutes' conversation but then I
went back to sleep again. I had a cup of coffee before I
THE BIG LAUGH
came downstairs. You never smoke cigars, do you, Hubie?"
"Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to die of cancer from
cigars. I understand he was what they call a dry smoker,
never lit them."
"I didn't know that."
"Well, that's what I heard," said Charley. "I don't
know much about Grant myself. He had a pretty sad life,
I know that much. I never been able to pass judgment on
him, whether he was a crook at heart or was just taken by
his so-called friends."
"How was he taken?"
"Oh, it's a long story if you don't remember your
American history. But there was a fellow that was a great
general, and then he got to be President of the United
States. You'd think when you got to be that high up — but
then we had Harding only a few years ago. Grant would
have been all right if he'd stuck to the army, and Harding
was nothing but a small-town newspaper publisher. What
the hell am I doing in the picture business?"
"Well, as Herman Mankiewicz says, making a lousy
"That's all right for Mank to say. Writers can afford
to be wisecrackers. But I could have been something else
besides what I am, and my wife and children would have
been just as well off. What does Mildred get out of all
this crap? And sending my kids to private schools, for
what? I got Harold at Lawrenceville and he says he wants
to go to Yale. A Jewish Dink Stover I got. I got my girls at
a Catholic school, and I said to one of them the other
JOHN O HARA
day, 'What's that you're singing?' And she says, 'Macula
non est in te' Macula non est in te, for Christ's sakel
Sin is not in you, I translate it. Wendy hates the school,
because all that religion around her makes her feel like an
outcast. Charlene loves it and says she wants to be a nun.
So who wins? I ask you. Wendy's miserable, and Charlene
makes me miserable. But it's the best school we could get
them in. The worst of it is, the whole structure is liable to
collapse, and 111 be a forty-three-year-old ex-lawyer look-
ing for a job. I'll go in to see my old boss, S. J. Feinberg,
the advisor to kings and presidents, and 111 say, 'Well, Mr.
Feinberg, can you use a fellow that knows all about the
Dunning Process?' You know what hell say. His dunning
and my Dunning might as well be two different lan-
"Charley, you've just got the blues."
"You never spoke a truer word. Well, here's my drink.
Waiter, take this cigar and throw it away some place.
When a seventy-five-cent cigar tastes like an El Ropo, 111
have one of these cigarettes."
"Charley, why don't you go away some place? Go
tiger-hunting in India, for instance?"
"For a change, you're suggesting? Be a change, all
right. Take Clive Brook with me, huh? Him and C. Aubrey
Smith and I, on top of an elephant? Hubie, I'll give you
credit for some imagination. You know what I'd see if I
went to India? Millions of half-naked Hindus, bathing
in the Ganges River and begging for alms, and every min-
ute I'd be wondering when it's going to happen to this
country. I know a fellow, when he gets the blues he has
THE BIG LAUGH
these two Chinese girls, but that's not my trouble, and if
Mildred ever found out, what explanation could I offer?
I've been to a lot of conventions, and for a joke the fel-
lows used to hide a naked broad in my closet, but that's
af a convention, and I don't have to go to them any more.
I guess if I had a piece of tail with five different dames in
nineteen years I've been married to Mildred — five at
the outside. This is confidential, Hubie. You understand
"It never bothered me. After one experience I always
leave the door open in my office. That was a young kid
that she's a star now, but then she used to think if you got
inside a producer's office you had to give. Big star now,
and one of my best friends. Goes around telling people
I'm the only decent man in the whole business, simply be-
cause I only wanted her for a part in a picture, not for a
piece of gash. Doris Arlington."
"You passed that up?"
"I never even told Mildred, but Doris did. She told
Mildred that I was the one guy that could be trusted in
the whole business. No, that never bothered me. I was
never a chaser. I was in this business to make money,
pure and simple. I don't mean that as a gag. But the money
isn't going to be there much longer, Hubie. Pictures are
costing so much more and at the same time the public
don't have the money to spend, so you get less back on a
bigger investment. In plain language, you lose money.
And yet at the same time you don't know which way to
turn. What are they going to want, the public? Stars. The
JOHN O HARA
biggest names. But the money you have to pay them — if
you can get them! And making as few pictures as I do, you
can't afford to miss. I'll pay good money for a story by W.
Somerset Maugham or Louis Bromfield, and 111 go as high
as I can for a star. But I can still have a flop picture,
if enough people don't go to the ticket window. And the
biggest flop will be me, Charley Simmons. One thing I'll
never do is borrow money on my insurance."
"I haven't got any insurance."
"The insurance companies will be the last to go. A
lot of banks are going, but you don't read about insurance
companies folding up. I carry a hell of a lot of it."
"Well, I haven't got any dependents."
"Oh, hell, you'll be all right. You're young and
"Keep drinking that fruit juice, and take your time
about getting married. But don't count on marrying a rich
dame. There may not be any rich dames, Hubie. This is
only the beginning."
"The beginning of the end, you mean?"
"It's no joke, Hubie. Babson, Fisher, I don't care who
you read. They don't tell me anything good."
"Then I won't read them, and I never heard of them
"I have to read them, just to torture myself."
"Charley, maybe you ought to just get drunk for a
couple of days."
"I'll give that a try, tonight. But I have to be at the
studio Monday morning."
THE BIG LAUGH
"Take Monday off. You're the boss."
"That's just the trouble . . . Well, we got some new
customers, and you better get some clothes on. Catch a
mean cold down here, and you start shooting pretty
soon, I read somewhere."
"Week from Thursday."
"I'll be in New York. Pardon me, Hubie. Ruth and
He walked away a few steps, then came back and got
his drink. He made no little joke about it, he said noth-
ing at all.
Darkness came swiftly, and the poolside activity
ended abruptly. Some of the house guests went to their
rooms to change for dinner; some lingered downstairs.
There was a bridge game going on, and four men were
at the billiard table, playing pill pool. This was the hiatus
between the day party and the night party that was to
come. Servants moved about, removing furniture that had
to do with the day party and putting in place the furniture
that was appropriate to the night party. They put away
towels and chairs and umbrellas, and set up the small
tables for the dinner party. With the darkness came damp-
ness, so that no one would sit outside during the night
party without spoiling a dress or soaking an evening suit.
The servants completely ignored the bridge and pool
players, who, if they wanted a drink, had to get it them-
selves. Hubert Ward watched a hand of bridge, but the
players ignored him. He watched the pool players, but he
was an outsider to them. For no sensible reason he sud-
denly felt homesick. He had not felt homesick in five years,
JOHN O HARA
and he had no explanation for it now. He had not felt
homesick in ten years. He had never been homesick in
his life, but now, for no reason at all, he wanted to cry. He
looked at the intent gamblers at the card and billiard
tables. He knew them all, they knew him, and he cared
nothing about any of them, none of them cared anything
about him. He was a very fortunate young man, twenty-
five years old — and then he remembered that it was his
birthday and it only made him feel worse.
He went back to the kitchen — which was in the front
of the house — and the servants who had started to eat
their evening meal stared at his intrusion. "You looking
for something, Mr. Ward?" said the butler.
"Yes, Harry. Do you happen to have Mr. Barley's
"Mr. Dwight Barley down the road? I think we may
have that, sir. Let me have a look." Harry opened a cabinet
drawer and brought out a white leather book. "Bara,
Theda," he said. "Barley, Dwight. Yes sir, Malibu 6617-J-3.
Shall I write it down, sir?"
"Malibu 6617- J-3. I'll remember it, thanks."
"Very good sir."
Hubert Ward went to the telephone booth under the
main stairway and gave the operator the number.
"Barley residence," said a maid.
"May I speak to Mrs. Stephens, please?"
"One moment, sir."
Time passed while the maid apparently found Mrs.
Stephens, and there was a click as she picked up the ex-
tension. "Hello, who is this?" said Mrs. Stephens.
THE BIG LAUGH
"This is Hubert Ward. I hope I didn't disturb you."
"I couldn't imagine who'd be calling me."
"Does the name register?"
"Of course. But my sister and my brother-in-law are
standing right here, just as mystified as I was. This is my
first call since I've been in California."
"Are you coming to the party tonight?"
"I see. Your sister made other plans."
"Well, not exactly. It's just that — "
"It's just that if you come here then your sister will
have to invite the Simmonses, is that it?"
"I'm afraid you've put your finger on it."
"I don't think I'd better, really. No, that wouldn't
do at all."
"Why? I'm flattered, but why me especially?"
"Because I'm homesick. Suddenly I got homesick, and
I got your sister's number and called you."
"Oh, dear. It's hard to say no to that. I know just
how you feel. I've been feeling a little that way. Would
you come and call for me when your dinner party's
over? And what time would that be?"
"Around ten o'clock."
"I haven't got anything very dressy to wear."
"Borrow something from your sister."
"I can see you don't know her very well."
"To tell you the truth, I wouldn't know her if I saw
JOHN O HARA
"Obviously. But I'll find something. Oh, this won't be
a very late party, will it? Because we're all early risers
here, and I think we have to go to Pasadena for lunch. Do
you know the Midwick Club? I'm sure you do. That's
quite a distance from here, and my sister's calling to me
that we have to be ready to leave here at ten o'clock. Sun-
"Ill be at your sister's at ten o'clock tonight, and I'll
bring you home whenever you say."
"Thank you." She rather sang the words, and hung
He came out of the booth and saw the butler, Harry,
who was shaking both fists in a fit of controlled rage.
"What's the matter, Harry?"
Harry shook his head.
"Come on, tell me."
"Oh — one of those gentlemen. Insisted on using the
ivory cueball. I told him it was against orders. I'm not to
put out the ivory cueball for pill pool. But he insisted, and
of course he cracked it. This air down here, and you sim-
ply can't use an ivory ball in that sort of game. And now
I'll catch it from the boss. I'm thinking of giving notice."
"Which gentleman was it?"
"I'll leave it to you to guess, sir."
"Right the first time/
"I'll speak to Mr. Simmons, Harry. Don't you worry."
"Oh, it isn't only that, sir. It's everything Mr. Ziffrin
does. He coughs up in our best linen, wipes his boots on
THE BIG LAUGH
our hand towels, although there's cloths for that purpose
in all the bathrooms."
"I'll say it for you. He's a pig. But maybe Mr. Simmons
will get rid of him."
"Afraid not, sir. Not the way I hear. Not the way I
hear. Can I get you anything, sir?"
"Not the way you hear? What do you hear, Harry?"
"Excuse me, sir, Mr. Ward. I've said more than I
"If there's anything Mr. Simmons ought to know — "
"It's not my place to tell him, sir. I'm only the butler.
Very sorry sir, but please don't pursue the subject."
"Will that be all, sir? Thank you, sir."
The ground floor was now deserted of guests. The
diningroom and livingrooms were brightly lighted through-
out and in readiness for the night party. Hubert Ward
had a last look around, as though he were the host and
trying to see how it would all seem to Mrs. Stephens.
If anyone got up hungry from a meal at Mildred Sim-
mons's, it was his own fault. Tonight the dinner began
with avocado stuffed with crabmeat and covered with
Russian dressing, and then on to mock turtle soup laced
with sherry; filet mignon with sauce bearnaise; whipped
potatoes, green beans, and asparagus with drawn butter;
hearts of lettuce with Thousand Island dressing, and, for
dessert, cherries Jubilee. Champagne was the only wine
other than the sherry in the soup, but some of the guests
spurned the champagne and sipped highballs throughout
JOHN O HARA
the meal. There were thirty-nine men and women seated
at four tables of ten, ten, ten, and nine persons each. There
was music from a combination of piano, trumpet, saxo-
phone doubling in clarinet, bass viol, and accordion.
The accordionist was the leader, and he wandered about,
spotting executives and stars and nodding and smiling,
the nod and smile quickly followed by the playing of a
tune or the theme song from the executive's or star's most
recent picture. Barney Morse was the leader's name, and
he had a very nice sense of protocol; he would not play
tunes identified with absent producers or stars until later
in the evening, when it was also permissible to play music
from Broadway shows. There was some, but not much,
dancing during dinner; a man who fancied himself on the
dance floor, a woman who wanted no one to miss her
Molyneaux original. Dancing during dinner was not en-
couraged; it was a time to eat and drink and to find out
what could be found out about the industry.
Mildred Simmons knew how her guests liked to be
entertained. If there was a sameness to these parties it was
because it was what these people wanted. It was a seated
dinner, with the place cards held in the bills of crystal
penguins. "Oh, I got you again. I had you Thursday," a
woman would say to the man on her right, and inevitably
the man on her left would make some joke on the wording
of her remark. The parties offered the pleasure of the fa-
miliar; for the unfamiliar, for surprises, for originality the
guests could have gone to other parties, but they seldom
strayed from their own group, unless there were others
straying from it as well. Tonight, for example, some of
THE BIG LAUGH
them would go to Marion's in Santa Monica, but not be-
fore they had put in an appearance at Xlildred's.
Hubert Ward was at the table for nine. On his right
was Ruth St. Alban; on his left, Doris Arlington. "Who
didn't come tonight?'' said Doris Arlington.
"I think some fellow from the East," said Hubert
"That's right," said Doris Arlington. "From Philly.
Sonny Shaplen, S. S. Shaplen's son. I'm glad we're spared
that. Do you know him?"
"I certainly do."
"All I can say is, he better enjoy himself while his
father's still alive. He sure as hell wouldn't get invited on
"I know Sonny Shaplen. I think he's nice," said Ruth
"You have a good word for everybody," said Doris.
"And that's just the trouble, Ruthie. Doesn't mean any-
thing. Try rapping a few people."
"But I like everybody, or almost."
"Yes, I guess you do," said Doris. "Well, I take it back.
You stay the way you are."
"I always see the good in everybody," said Ruth.
"I know," said Doris. She cut out Ruth. "Hubie, you
start shooting next week."
"Week from Thursday."
"I just finished one. What's the picture you're doing?
I know it's about aviation, isn't it?"
"Yes. The Royal Flying Corps. It's called Destroyers
JOHN O HARA
"A lousy title. I hope they change that," said Doris.
"Have you got a good part? I don't necessarily mean big,
but good? You know, Hubie, you're going to waste because
they don't seem to find the right part for you. There goes
Arlington, shooting off her face again, but it's true."
"It's a good part, I think. And not very big. But I al-
ways wanted to work with Ken Downey. For action pic-
tures I think he's the best."
"Well, you know I was married to Ken for three
"And a worse son of a bitch to live with doesn't exist.
But he's a genius, Hubie. He's like you. He's been wasted.
But some day he'll get the right story. Maybe this is it.
You know, Ken was a flyer in the war, and he's always
wanted to do an aviation picture. But don't lose your tem-
per. He's a practical joker, and the first couple days shoot-
ing he'll play some terrible joke. He calls that testing your
sense of humor. The man has absolutely no sense of
humor. Well — that's not true. He has a sense of humor.
But not like Bob Benchley. I mean Bob has a sense of
humor, and so has Ken but a different kind. It's hard to
explain, but you'll find out for yourself. Bob Benchley
would never do anything that would really hurt anybody,
and Ken does. He's very cruel. I think the war did some-
thing to Ken. He saw a lot of his friends shot down, and
he gives you the impression that he doesn't care what hap-
pens. That's one of the things that's held him back in this
business. You can't get anywhere with men like Charley
Simmons, for instance, if you don't at least make a pre-
THE BIG LAUGH
tense of taking things seriously. Who's the head camera-
man, do you know?"
"Yes. Walter Rapallo."
"Oh, then you have nothing to worry about. They
work well together. Walter's the only man Ken will admit
knows more than he does — about the camera, that is.
About anything else — nobody. Love. Art. Philosophy.
"Oh, God, yes. Poetry. I used to get so fucking tired
of Ken spouting poetry, and then going out and turning in
a fire alarm or something like that . . . Mr. Ziffrin is put-
ting his cigar in the mashed potatoes again. What do you
hear about Ziffrin and Charley Simmons? I hear they had
"I don't know."
"Come on, Hubie. Open up. It'll get around sooner
"I honestly don't know anything. I didn't even know
they'd had a row."
"What do you and Mildred talk about, besides who's
"That's about all, I guess."
"Did you ever screw Mildred?"
"No. And would I tell you if I had?"
"Not in so many words, but I might be able to tell by
the way you answered."
"I'm not sure. I'm not sure you did, and I'm not sure
you didn't. If you haven't, take my advice and don't."
JOHN O HARA
"Not that I give a damn about Mildred. But I'm very
fond of Charley, and he's been very good to that
"What about you and Charley?"
"I offered it and was turned down. Everybody knows
"Well, I heard that, but would you offer it again?"
"No. Heavens, no. If I had a brother he wouldn't be
as safe with me as Charley is. But sometimes I worry about
Charley. Tonight, why is he getting plastered? The row
with Ziffrin? I'd ask him, but I don't think he'd tell me.
There's something going on. A lot of men, including
some here tonight, are getting sore at Charley for being
so pessimistic. About conditions, I mean. They wish he'd
shut up. And I guess I do, too. You don't put out a fire by
pouring gasoline on it, and Charley's one of the few edu-
cated men in this business. He isn't only U. S. Films, In-
corporated. The things he's saying, if the Wall Street
Journal got hold of them, stocks in every company would
collapse. This is the third largest industry in the whole
United States, or the fourth. Third or fourth, it doesn't do
any good to cry the blues that way. Do you think it does?"
"No, but I don't know much about that. I don't put
my money in stocks."
"I wish I hadn't. Not that I don't like working. I'll
never stop as long as I can get a job. But, boy, I took a
shellacking in the market. Twice, not just once. From
now on, annuities and government bonds for little Doris.
And bridge with my friends that haven't caught on to
THE BIG LAUGH
contract. Do you know what I did the last time I was in
New York? I was there for two weeks, and I had ten les-
sons from Ely and Josephine Culbertson. I wish Mildred
played bridge. I'd love to take some money away from
her. How about you, Hubie? Would you like to start a
game after dinner?"
"Not with somebody that just took lessons from the
Culbertsons. Half a cent a point is my limit."
"Oh, then I withdraw the invitation. Joe Ziffrin. He'd
play for a nickel a point, and he fancies himself. Our host-
ess is signaling to you."
Hubert Ward turned around, but Mildred was not
looking in his direction.
"She gave up," said Doris. "I don't know what she
wanted. Be independent, Hubie. Make her come to you."
"That's what I'm going to do."
Doris looked at him and half smiled. "You know,
I'm still not positive, but I think you and Mildred. I only
said I think"
"Lay off it, Doris. You could start something where
there is nothing."
"Oh, if you only knew how many times I've said that,
in those very same words. I fooled Ken Downey with that
line for six months one time."
Tm not trying to fool anybody."
"And you're not, Mr. Ward. Not little Doris. But I'll
keep my suspicions to myself. Ill do that for Charley, not
for Mildred, or even you. Oh, shut up."
"I didn't say anything."
"You were going to."
JOHN O HARA
"You won't mind if I see if I have better luck with
Ruth — conversationally, that is."
"Oh, with Ruth you don't need luck as far as anything
else is concerned. But of course you found that out a long
time ago. No, go right ahead. Ill see what I can extract from
Ruth St. Alban was at least a simple chatterer, and
for the remainder of the meal she held forth on the subject
of her diet, which was guaranteed to slim you down with-
out leaving wrinkles, owing to a high calcium content. At
the end of dinner the women went upstairs, and the men
sat around the tables as they were being cleared. Hubert
Ward made his way to Charley Simmons's table.
"Hello, Hubie. You don't have a drink. Take a Bene-
dictine frappe. It goes good after a heavy dinner."
"No, I'll have some coffee, that's all."
"Sit here next to me before Joe Ziffrin gets a chance.
He's maneuvering his way over, and I got nothing to say
to him. Who'd you sit next to tonight?"
"Doris on the one side and Ruth on the other."
"I hear Doris just finished one for Paramount that's
going to make her bigger than ever, if that's possible.
That's a real woman, Doris. If she'd of been a man and
maybe just a little education, she could be the head of any
studio in town."
"They say that about Mildred, too. Practically that."
"What they say about Mildred is that half my brains
belongs to her. That's a little different. That's the same as
if you said teamwork. But Doris is a lone wolf type of op-
erator. And not saying anything against Mildred, or de-
THE BIG LAUGH
tracting in any way, but Mildred isn't as good as Doris
when it comes to judging people. That's because she had
it tougher all the way, Doris. Chottie Sears and Doris
Arlington would be my pick if I were asked to name the
two brainiest women in town, but Doris I know better. I
don't see as much of Chottie, so that leaves Doris. Mildred
is mixed up in this business because I am, but Doris is
strictly pictures. Strictly. She has a good story sense, she
knows camera work, and she could cut a picture if she had
to. And pictures are her life, and not just her living, if you
know what I mean. She likes the men, all right, but the
men come second with Doris. She arrived at the point a
long time ago where no man is as important to her as
her career. I wonder what would have happened if she
and I got together that time. It's interesting to speculate
that. She was awful pretty then. She grew into a handsome
woman, chic. But if I would have screwed her that time,
there was something very appealing to the kid. The brains
I didn't know about till later. But what if I fell for her
then, and then the two of us pooled our brains? We could
have changed the entire history of this town, the entire
"Probably. Charley, will you excuse me? I have a
date that I'm bringing back here. You're all right. Ziffrin's
got an audience."
"Who's your date, if I may ask?"
"She's Mrs. Dwight Barley's sister. A young widow
named Stephens. I said I'd pick her up at ten o'clock.
And Charley, I know you're not drunk, but go easy."
"I can't get drunk, Hubie. Not that it's any your
JOHN O HARA
business. I just stay the same. See, that's the difference
between those sweet rum drinks and whiskey. The rum
knocked me, but the whiskey has no effect."
"Famous last words," said Hubert Ward.
"I appreciate your good intentions, but don't start
taking liberties, Hubie. Go get your date."
Dwight Barley and his wife were reading magazines,
and Hubert Ward, when he rang the doorbell, could see
the Barleys simultaneously removing their reading glasses,
with Barley the one who came to the door. It was an ugly
yellow house, more suitable to a New Jersey seashore re-
sort than to Malibu, California, but so was Dwight Barley.
He was wearing a tan gabardine jacket and grey flannel
slacks, polka-dot bow tie, and plain white buckskin shoes.
"Good evening. You're Mr. Ward? Will you come in?"
"Yes, good evening. I've met you before — "
"Well, I didn't think you'd remember. Come in, my
sister-in-law will be down in a minute. I'd like you to meet
"I've also met Mrs. Barley."
"Oh, yes indeed," said Josephine Barley. "Sit down,
won't you? Nina will be down any minute. She had to
borrow an evening dress from a friend of mine. Nothing
of mine would fit her, of course."
"How about a drink, Mr. Ward? What would you
like? We have whiskey, gin, and brandy. And tequila."
"Not a thing, thanks. I'm not much of a drinker."
"That's a load off my mind," said Josephine Barley.
"I had visions of Nina left all by herself at a movie celeb-
THE BIG LAUGH
"You underestimate your sister's attractiveness."
"Not a bit. It's just that I know Nina, and her shy-
ness among strangers. And I suppose all the big stars will
be there, they usually are, aren't they?"
"They're not? Who is, then?"
"Big stars, but not all of them by any means. A lot
of them are never invited to the Simmonses'."
"Oh, then there's an inner circle, you might say?"
"Very much so. A lot of big stars would give a year's
salary to be invited to the Simmonses'."
"Oh, dear. There's that much prestige? I didn't real-
ize that. I didn't realize that at all. I thought all movie
people more or less went around together."
"Then tell me, Mr. Ward," said Barley. "How do you
get admitted to this inner circle? I mean, why are some in
it and some not?"
"It's hard to say, exactly. I'm not a big star. There
are lots much bigger, but I was invited to these people's
parties before I realized that — -well, I was like Mrs. Barley.
I thought all movie people went around together. But we
had the same thing at home."
"Where was home, Mr. Ward?" said Josephine Barley.
"North Montclair, New Jersey. There were some peo-
ple that belonged to the club, and some that didn't."
"Oh, you're an Easterner?" said Josephine Barley.
"Very much so. I'd never been west of the Delaware
River till I came out here. Chicago was practically the
western frontier, to me."
JOHN O HARA
"Oh, really?" said Josephine Barley.
"Do you mind if I ask you — well, an impertinent ques-
tion. But is Hubert Ward your real name?" said Dwight
"No," said Hubert Ward. He paused just long enough
for them to begin to triumph. "My real name is Richard
Hubert Ward. Why?"
Barley was quick to recover. "If it comes to that, my
name isn't Dwight Barley. It's Timothy Dwight Barley,
but I stopped using my first name long ago. Timothy Bar-
ley — if you know anything about farming. I could have
been called Timothy Alfalfa Oats Barley. In fact my nick-
name in college was Farmer."
"Where did you go to college?"
"I went to the University of Michigan, at Ann Ar-
"And before that, Exeter," said his wife. "Where did
you go, Mr. Ward?"
"Well, I went to Andover for a while, but I didn't last
very long. I didn't go to college at all."
"Oh, you went to Andover? I broke my leg in the
Andover game. You're too young to have been on that
team — "
"Not only too young. I never went out for football."
"It's a great game, Ward. You learn things on the
football field that last you through life."
"Not anything I wanted to learn."
"Well, of course you were going to be an actor."
"No, I was going to be a banker. That's what I was
headed for. But my father fixed that."
THE BIG LAUGH
"Why? What did he want you to be?"
"A banker. But he did a little high-powered embez-
"Are you joking?"
"No. I wouldn't joke about that. He got caught, and
he shot himself."
"Is that true?" said Barley.
"You're a businessman, although I don't know what
business. But you could find out without much trouble.
And you probably will, so I'm telling you myself."
"Why do you say I probably will? Frankly, I had no
"But I'm hoping to see more of Mrs. Stephens than
just tonight, and I'm sure you and Mrs. Barley will want
to find out all you can."
The Barleys looked at each other, each willing to let
the other make the reply. Josephine Barley accepted the
duty. "My sister's returning to Chicago next week, so I
guess that won't be necessary, Mr. Ward."
"Maybe not. But now you know that much, at least.
Ah, here she is."
"Hello," said Nina Stephens. "You were late, so I
won't apologize for keeping you."
"Very pretty dress," said Hubert Ward.
"Borrowed, but I'd like to buy it from the owner.
Maybe if I spill something on it she'll be willing to sell it
"Nina!" said Josephine Barley.
"Now I don't mean it, Josephine. Well, are we
ready?" Nina Stephens looked at her sister and brother-in-
JOHN O HARA
law and frowned a little. "Yes, I think we're all ready. I
left a note in the kitchen to be called at half-past eight.
Is that early enough, Josephine?"
"Goodnight, Nina," said Dwight Barley. "Mr. Ward."
"Goodnight, Mrs. Barley. Mr. Barley. The bank was
in Newark. Newark, New Jersey. His name was Sanford
In the Lancia, even before he started the engine, she
said, "What was that all about? You didn't hit it off, I
could tell that. I always know when Josephine doesn't
approve of somebody. And Dwight, too. Not that they
were going to receive you with open arms anyway. If you
don't belong to the California Club, don't expect much
cordiality from my brother-in-law. He says that's the only
place where he meets his kind of people. And he may be
"Well, it isn't the only place, but I know what he
means." Hubert Ward reported the gist of the conversa-
tion as he drove slowly to the Simmons house. She was si-
lent throughout, and when they stopped at the house she
made no move to get out of the car.
"Tins is where we get out," he said.
"I'm not so sure," she said. "I only met you this after-
"I only met you this afternoon."
"My sister is quite a bit older than I am, and she's
been very worried about me. She insisted on my coming
to California because — I wasn't — I was taking too long
THE BIG LAUGH
snapping out of it. My husband's death. If you don't
mind, Mr. Ward, I think you'd better take me back."
"But I do mind. I mind very much."
"Please. Get me a taxi. Or there must be one of these
chauffeurs that will take me home."
"You know damn well I'd take you home, and not any
taxi or somebody else's chauffeur. But you also know
damn well . . ." He stopped abruptly, the thing that
happens when an idea is so new that it has never been
confined by words.
"What?" she said.
"I don't know, Nina. I don't know. I said more to your
sister than I can say to you."
"You said much too much to my sister."
"Yes. I did. But what I said I meant. I do want to see
you more than just tonight. I don't want to see anyone
else. I never want to see anyone else. And I've never said
that before, to anyone."
"There's an explanation for that. An easy one." She
waved her hand in the direction of the house, brightly lit,
music coming from the diningroom at the other end. "I'm
not a part of that, and you told me this afternoon you
"Yes, that's the easy explanation, all right. But give
me credit for thinking of that one myself. I did. But it
wasn't enough, not good enough."
"Evening, Mr. Ward? Park it for you? You want me
to cover it for the night?" said the Simmons chauffeur.
"No thanks, Leonard. We're not ready to get out yet."
The Simmons chauffeur went away.
JOHN O HARA
"We could talk about this inside. Your shawl isn't
much protection from this damp air, and I'm told the
dampness raises hell with a permanent wave. You'll spoil
it for Pasadena tomorrow."
"I don't give a damn about Pasadena tomorrow. Can
we talk inside? We ought to talk, so that there'll be no
"Although I know what you're going to say."
"Yes, I guess it's pretty obvious."
"You're going to tell me that we're not going to see
each other again. But Nina, you're not going to mean it.
I know that. You can't mean it, because at least some of
what's happened to me has happened to you, too. I be-
lieve that as much as I believe in God. Or more. If I'm
wrong, tell me, and I'll turn the car around and drive you
"No, you're not wrong."
"That's all I want you to say now. Let's go in and
I'll show you the animals in the zoo, and when you get
tired of them 111 take you home."
She turned to him and smiled.
"You know, that smile was as good as a kiss," he said.
"Strange man," she said. "Nice, though. In some
He had not prepared her for the stares. Other men,
and he himself, had brought an occasional bit player and
non-professional to parties of the group; and from time
to time there would be visitors from the worlds of Los
Angeles, Pasadena, and Santa Barbara, three worlds in
one outside world. But Nina Stephens, whom some of
THE BIG LAUGH
them had seen in the afternoon (and mistaken her for a
new governess) was now stared at with hostility. The
actresses were sure she would not photograph well; the
non-acting wives noted the absence of jewelry and the
dress that was a "Ford"; the men thought she might be
some German actress whom an agent would bring to their
offices on Monday. One non-acting wife said she under-
stood the young woman was Hubie Ward's sister. One
man said he had laid her two weeks ago in the most repu-
table Hollywood brothel, and he thought Hubie Ward
had a hell of a nerve to bring her here.
"Let's find our hostess," said Hubie Ward.
But their hostess found them. "Good evening, I'm
Mrs. Simmons. I met you this afternoon, didn't I?"
"How nice of you to remember," said Nina Stephens.
"Mrs. Stevenson? Did I get it right?"
"Without the son. Stephens."
"I hope you told Dwight and Josephine. Are they
coming, or maybe they're here."
"They have to be up very early, but they asked me
to thank you and could they have a raincheck."
"I bet it was Dwight that said that, not Josephine.
"No, I think it was Josephine."
"Well, make yourself at home. Drinks are over there,
and if you get hungry, just tell the waiter. The buffet
won't be ready till around twelve." Mildred left them.
"She never said a word to you," said Nina Stephens.
"I don't think she's very happy about your bringing me."
"I don't think she is either."
JOHN O HARA
"I guess no more need be said about that" said Nina.
"I guess not."
She smiled at him again. "We've gotten pretty far in
a very short time."
"Yeah," he said. "I was thinking the same thing."
"And with not much said. We're going too fast."
"Not for me."
"For me, though," she said.
"All right, well slow down. Just as long as I can be
with you, that's all I care about."
"I recognize a lot of the women and a few of the men.
But who are the others?"
"Producers. Directors. And their wives. And some
wives and husbands of the men and women you recog-
"This is Hollywood society, I take it?"
"When does the excitement begin?"
"The biggest excitement will be around four o'clock
in the morning."
"What happens then? A naked girl comes out of a
"Sorry to disappoint you. No, the biggest excitement
will be in the poker game. They'll raise the stakes, and
play stud, and maybe some guy will have a possible
straight flush. Something like that. And you'll see a pot
go to, oh, fifteen or twenty thousand dollars. Maybe
"I know people that play for that much in Chicago."
"Well, that's the big excitement in this group. I grant
THE BIG LAUGH
you that all these men have been to parties where the
naked girl comes out of a cake. And plenty more than
that goes on. But not at these parties. And I guess some
of the women in this room have been the girl that came
out of the cake. But not any more."
"Mrs. Simmons looks as though she might have been
a madam. Maybe I shouldn't have said that, but was she?"
"She'd love you for that. No, she was a stenographer
in her husband's law firm, before he got in the movie
"There's Doris Arlington! Oh, do you suppose I could
meet her? Is she going to hate me because I came with
you, like Mrs. Simmons?"
"No. Doris and I were never that way about each
other. I'll get her to come over. She's looking for some
suckers to play bridge."
"Doris Arlington playing bridge? Don't disillusion me.
And she's good?"
"Yes, and she's been taking lessons from the Culbert-
sons. She saw me wave. She's coming over."
Doris Arlington slunk over to them. "Hello. I'm Doris
Arlington. I see Hubie's not introducing you around." Doris
sat beside Nina.
"I'm Nina Stephens."
"How do you do," said Doris. She lowered her voice.
"Hubie, Mildred and Charley have had a knock-down-
and-drag-out. I thought I ought to tell you."
"Where is he?"
"I haven't seen him for about a half an hour. I think
he may have gone upstairs."
JOHN O HARA
"Will you talk to Nina while I go look for him?"
"I'd be most happy to, but are you sure you want to
do that? I'm not sure it's wise."
"Were you there when they had the fight?"
"At the beginning. She told him to stop swilling the
booze and then they went out in the hall and closed the
door behind them. Then she came back, but I haven't
seen him since. So I guess he retired to his bedroom. It
was a bad one, 111 tell you that. She came back and the
first thing she did was have a great big rye highball. If he
can get drunk I guess I can too,' she said."
"And you haven't seen him for a half an hour."
"Nobody has, at least nobody in this room. He com-
"He doesn't want to have to talk to Ziffrin."
"This wasn't about Ziffrin."
"How do you know?"
"Those two wouldn't fight that way about Ziffrin. I'd
stay out of it if I were you."
"I know what you're trying to say, Doris, but I'm
going to find Charley. Excuse me, Nina? Ill be right back."
Hubert Ward went upstairs and knocked on Char-
ley's bedroom door.
"Who is it?"
"It's me, Hubie Ward."
The door was opened. Charley Simmons did not
wait at the door, but walked to a chair, beside winch, on
the floor, was a whiskey bottle. He had a highball glass in
his hand. "Shut the door," he said.
"What is there I can do, Charley?"
THE BIG LAUGH
"You ve done it. Thanks."
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't make me throw up. Mildred told me."
"Told you what?"
"Yeah, I got her mad enough and she told me. She
thinks I have a woman some place, so today she had her
man. You. I don't have a woman. But she thought I did.
She wouldn't ask me. No. No, she wouldn't ask me. That
would have spoiled her excuse. Well, Hubie, you and her
talking dirty God knows how many years, you finally got
her in heat. Something to see, isn't it? Now you know why
I never wanted anybody else for nineteen years. But now
I don't want her either. Now she's nothing but an ugly
woman with a shape, and all the fancy things you told her
and she read about and maybe I told her. Yeah, maybe
I told her too. But I don't want any more of it, Hubie. You
help yourself. Not that I blame you. If it's there, grab it.
But do me a favor. Pack your God damn bag and don't
sleep here tonight. Go on downstairs, join the party, and
I don't even care if you take her with you. But no more
screwing my wife in my house. I have enough trouble. Go
on, beat it, Hubie. Get out, out, out, out, out of my sight.
And don't stay here tonight."
"What are you going to do? Are you going to divorce
"I don't know what I'm gonna do. We got the kids
to consider. Stover at Yale, and the daughter that wants
to be a nun, and the one they didn't spoil. I don't want
you to spoil her, too, Hubie. And you would. You're the
kind that would. You can't help yourself. I know all about
JOHN O HARA
you. All about you. Marty Ruskin told me all about you
a long time ago, Hubie. So go away, will you?"
"I m sorry, Charley."
"Yeah, I wouldn't be s prised. But you stink, Hubie.
You honest to God stink." He picked up the bottle and
poured whiskey to the top of the glass.
"I agree with you," said Hubert Ward. "Charley,
Doris is worried about you. Do you want me to send her
up to talk to you?"
"Ill be a son of a bitch. Do you think I'd let Doris
get mixed up in this stinking mess? No, you wouldn't un-
derstand how I feel about Doris. Do you know what I
think about Doris Arlington? Married three times? In six
hundred beds? The straightest woman in Hollywood. The
only one. The only one that's on the level. You wouldn't
understand that. And neither would your mistress, Mrs.
Charles Simmons. Go 'way." He looked at the glass and
started to drink, and he did not see Hubert Ward.
Doris Arlington was engaged in chatty conversation
with Nina, but when she saw Hubert Ward she stopped.
"How is he?"
"He's in very bad shape. But if he finishes the drink
he just started he'll pass out. Straight whiskey, a highball
"I think I'll go up."
"No. Don't," said Hubert Ward. "I said don't, Doris.
He doesn't want you to. He said so."
"Me in particular?"
c You in particular."
1 want to help him.
THE BIG LAUGH
"Tomorrow, but don't go up there tonight. I won't let
"You won't let me?"
"Cut the movie-star stuff, Doris. You don't frighten
me a bit. The best thing for him to do is pass out, and
he's ready to. Let's go out and get a breath of fresh air.
Come on, Doris. You come with us."
"Come on, the three of us. Clear the brain before you
start your bridge game."
"All right," said Doris Arlington.
They went out together and walked toward the pool.
He lit cigarettes for the women and for himself. "Maybe
I can get a towel and dry off a couple of chairs. Wouldn't
you rather sit out here a while?"
"Not after what you said about the dampness and
my permanent," said Nina.
"Let's just finish our cigarettes. Standing that long
won't hurt us," said Doris. She looked up toward Charley
Simmons's bedroom windows. "I hate to think of him up
there, all by himself, feeling lousy."
"He's probably passed out," said Hubert Ward.
"He was telling me earlier, he's going to make a sun
porch of the diningroom roof," said Doris.
"Yes, he told me that this afternoon."
They all looked toward the diningroom roof, imag-
ining a sun porch, then Nina spoke: "There's someone up
"Sh-h-h," whispered Doris. "Do you see who it is,
JOHN O HARA
"Don't make any noise," whispered Doris.
They made no move or sound as they watched Char-
ley Simmons, walking unsteadily, staggering now and
then, now and then stopping to look out at the sea. He
was in evening shirt and trousers, without the jacket, and
they could see him plainly. And slowly they began to
hear him. "We can put the God damn wuddia-call here.
Here, we'll put the God damn, the God damn umbrella."
He was talking to himself.
"He's getting close to the edge," whispered Nina.
"Can't we stop him?"
"He'll be all right if he goes back, but we mustn't star-
tle him," whispered Doris.
"Put the God damn railing — " they heard him say,
and then he took a step and toppled forward. He stayed
still where he fell, on the concrete terrace. They ran to
him, but he remained frozen in the same position and did
not answer them because he could not. "Don't move him,"
said Nina. "Don't touch him. I think his neck is broken, but
he may be alive."
Doris shook her head. "No, but we can get a doctor."
"I'll get a doctor," said Hubert Ward.
"Send someone out with a blanket," said Nina. "He
may be alive. But we mustn't touch him. We could do
just the wrong thing. Ah, the poor man. It's Mr. Simmons,
"It was Mr. Simmons," said Doris. She stood and
stared down at him, and on an impulse Nina Stephens
put her arm around Doris Arlington's shoulders.
THE BIG LAUGH
"It was so quick," said Nina.
"For him, not quick enough."
"We couldn't have stopped him," said Nina.
"I guess not. And even if we had." Doris Arlington
put her hand to her lips and made the gesture of throw-
ing a kiss to the figure on the concrete.
"Were you in love with him?" said Nina.
"No, girl. I was better than in love with him. He was
somebody I really liked."
Suddenly Bve or six men and women burst out of the
house, Mildred Simmons among them. "Where is he?
Where is he?" she shouted. Then she saw him on the con-
crete, ran to him and knelt, and drew him up, and his
head rolled of its own weight.
"Mildred, don't! His neck!" said Doris Arlington.
"I hope he was dead," Nina whispered to Doris. "He
has no chance now."
"Here's a blanket," said a man.
Mildred Simmons held her husband to her bosom
and rocked from side to side. "Poppa, poppa," she re-
peated. She looked in the faces of the people gathered
around, from one to another, but gave no sign of recogni-
tion, not even to Hubert Ward when he appeared.
"There's a doctor on the way, he's staying at the
Lewises', and the sheriffs patrol are getting an ambu-
lance," said Hubert Ward. It was an announcement
more than a message to Mildred. He went over and stood
beside Nina Stephens, and now Mildred followed him
with her eyes, but kept rocking from side to side with
Charley's head crushing her breasts. Now there were more
JOHN O HARA
people, and again more, speaking softly but creating by
their number a steady muttering.
"We can't do anything," said Hubert Ward to Doris
Arlington. "I'm going to take Nina home."
Doris Arlington nodded. "Yes, you ought to," she
From the edge of the group someone said, "Here's
the doctor," and it was repeated by others.
"Let's wait," said Nina. People crowded in front of
them and they could not see or hear the doctor, a thin
young man in a dinner jacket. Then they saw him stand
up and they heard a wail from Mildred, and now the oth-
ers, no longer speaking softly, uttered words of comfort.
"Shall we go now?" said Hubert Ward.
"Yes," said Nina.
They walked through the house and Hubert Ward
told a boy to bring his car. "Would you mind waiting in
the car? I won't be long."
"All right," said Nina.
He went up to his room and put his clothes in his bag
and returned to the car. He tipped the boy, and drove out
to the road. "It's still quite early," he said. "It's only a little
after eleven. Shall we go for a drive? Put my coat on and
let's drive somewhere."
"All right," she said.
They drove toward Santa Barbara, the first ten miles
in silence. "Are you warm enough?" he said.
"Yes, are you?" She was huddled in his polo coat.
"You don't have to talk," she said.
THE BIG LAUGH
"Thanks," he said. "I just don't want to be alone."
"And I suppose you know why."
"It isn't hard to guess," she said. "But don't talk,
unless you want to."
"All of a sudden I do want to. Will you let me?"
"And not hold against me anything I say?"
"I won't promise that."
"You don't think much of me, do you?"
"If I say no, you won't talk, and I think you ought
to talk. It'll be better to talk to me than to somebody in
"Quite the opposite. You're the only one whose opin-
ion I give a damn for."
"You mustn't think that. This is your life, and I'm
leaving here in a few days. I'm going back to where I be-
long, and you're staying here. Their opinion is very im-
portant in your life."
"There's nothing important in my life except you.
Whether you like it or not."
"That will pass. Everything does. Nearly everything."
"I slept with Mildred Simmons just once. That's all."
"Well, now the coast is clear . . . I'm sorry, I
shouldn't have said that. I don't know any of the circum-
stances, and I don't want to know."
He was silent.
"Listen, you don't owe me any apology. I mean ex-
JOHN O HARA
"The strange thing is that I feel that I do. For that
and everything else I've ever done that you wouldn't ap-
"We're going too fast again, and you're driving too
fast, too, by the way."
"I'm getting out of your life and you out of mine —
"Yes. I've been married, I have a child. And some
day I expect to marry again. But until then I don't want
to have anything messy."
"Have I suggested anything messy?"
"No, but what you wouldn't consider messy, I do. No
matter how you'd dress it up, or even if I dressed it up,
it would still be messy."
"Would you consider marriage messy? To me?"
"I haven't even known you twelve hours, half a day.
Don't speak of marriage. Yes, that kind of marriage would
be messy. When I was married it was for life. My husband
was killed, but the next time I marry will be for life, too.
Anything else I consider messy."
"Staying married can be messy, too."
"Not very often. That's the Hollywood idea. When
it's unpleasant or uncomfortable, or inconvenient, you get
a divorce. No wonder you have so many divorces, if that's
the way you enter into marriage. It shouldn't be that way.
You shouldn't admit that you may be making a mistake.
As soon as you have any doubts you should break the en-
THE BIG LAUGH
"You were lucky. You happened to have a good mar-
"It wasn't all luck. The trouble is people leave too
much to luck. They get married and then trust to luck.
They should be sure in the first place."
"Do you go to church?"
"Of course I go to church. And not just on Easter. I
go two or three times a month. Sometimes oftener."
"You're not a Catholic, are you?"
"Heavens, no. What ever gave you that idea? I'm an
Episcopalian, and very Low Church. Are you Catholic?
I went to school with a girl named Ward and she was
"No relation, I'm sure. No, I'm nothing. I was chris-
tened an Episcopalian but I was never confirmed,"
They were silent again until he said to her, "Are you
They were driving with the top down and the wind-
shield wiper was swinging back and forth. The arc it
made was the only clear area on the glass; the rest was
as untransparent as if it had been frosted.
"It looks like a pendulum, the windshield wiper. The
clock of life, time passing much more quickly than we
realize," she said.
"Yes, I see what you mean," he said.
"That man tonight, I feel as though I wanted to apol-
ogize to him."
"Several reasons. My lack of feeling, for one. I ought
JOHN O HARA
to be feeling more than I do, to see a man take a wrong
step, and a second later he's dead. All life has gone out
of him. A drunken man, walking on a roof, talking to him-
self. Do you know what's so terrible about it?"
"I'm almost ashamed to say this. But I've seen the
same thing in comedies."
"There's a Jewish comedian with a big nose, I can't
think of his name."
"Jewish comedian with a big nose."
"A long nose. A nose like an ant-eater, almost."
"That's his name! Do you see what I mean? This man
tonight was like Larry Semon. He even looked a little like
him. I must have seen hundreds of comedies of people
walking off roofs."
"Stepping off into space. Except that usually some-
one pulls them back."
"By the seat of the pants."
"Or else they almost fall but not quite, and then they
look down and realize how high up they are. That's all I
can think of."
"It would give Charley a laugh."
"Yes, I think it would. He had a sense of humor, and
I guess — I don't know."
"What?" she said.
"Well, it's sort of grim humor. But Charley was a big
THE BIG LAUGH
shot, one of the biggest. And it's kind of ironic, a big shot
in pictures ending up doing a pratfall. I can't laugh about
it, God knows. But it's ironic. It's like — I don't know. As
though Tom Mix got kicked to death by a Shetland pony."
"And those who live by the sword shall perish by
the sword," she said.
"I guess so, yes. Charley Simmons never made any
comedies, of course."
"But he made movies, and I never have taken them
"God knows he did. Especially the last few months.
He took the whole world seriously."
"Was he nice?"
"Was he nice? Yes, he was nice. I always liked him.
He didn't like me."
"No, that wasn't why. I only slept with her once,
and that was — so recently that — no. He didn't like me,
because big shots, the Charley Simmonses and the big
directors, they're the real big shots. Actors and actresses
are better known to the public, but when the big shots
crack the whip, we go through the hoop. We're cattle."
"I see. And for the same reason you don't like them."
"I guess that's true. Except in the case of Charley
Simmons, I damn near had a friend. I don't know why
he began confiding in me, but lately he did. Maybe be-
cause I wasn't a big shot. I guess that was it. The things
that were worrying him, he didn't dare confide in another
big shot, because when he tried to talk to them they got
sore. Charley was in trouble that had nothing to do with
JOHN O HARA
Mildred or me. Charley was worried about the world."
"I don't believe that people worry that much about
the world. I think when they worry about the world
they're really worried about something inside them-
"You happen to be right in his case. He was fed up
with picture business, and secretly he wanted to go back
to practising law. He was a lawyer. A Phi Beta Kappa.
And he was never at home in Hollywood. You hit it right
on the nose, at least in Charley's case."
"Where are we going?" she said.
"We're headed toward Santa Barbara, but we don't
have to go there. I'm just following the highway. Are you
cold? Shall we stop and get a cup of coffee?"
"No, your coat is very comfortable."
"It's very unusual, too. It's ready-made. And it's three
years old. In fact, it's a polo coat that I've worn on the polo
field. A very unusual coat."
"Belonging to a very unusual man."
"I don't know how you meant that, but you're right
there, too. I am a very unusual man." He held out his
wrist. "Can you see what time it is?"
"It's ten past twelve," she said. "Why?"
"I can relax. My birthday is over."
"Was today your birthday?"
"Yes. I was twenty-five. It's supposed to be an impor-
tant birthday, but I hardly thought about it all day. I
had a lot else to think about."
"Why do you say you're a very unusual man?" she
THE BIG LAUGH
"Because I am. Take the opposite of an unusual man,
and you've got D wight Barley."
"And my husband, if you mean conventional."
"I mean conventional. And that's what you like, isn't
"Because you're a very conventional woman?"
"But you're not, you know."
"In every conceivable way," she said.
"No. You've made yourself that, but you've done too
good a job. The conventional women are Doris Arlington.
Ruth St. Alban."
"Was she there tonight?"
"I heard some story about her, when she was stop-
ping over in Chicago one time. A boy I know was intro-
duced to her. Oh, it was one of those messy things. But
how can you say they're conventional?"
"Because they're dying for respectability. They love
all the excitement and publicity, but every time they fall
for a man they always say this is the real thing at last."
"You were saying something like that yourself, earlier
"I know. That's why I understand these women. I'm
a very unusual man, but that doesn't say I'm not fed up.
If we'd stopped for a cup of coffee, the man behind the
counter would recognize me. All the other customers
would recognize me. We'd get special attention, and then
I'd be expected to put down five bucks for two hamburg-
JOHN O HARA
ers and two coffees, forty cents' worth of food. Five dol-
lars, keep the change. Live like that a few years and the
novelty wears off. And they'd all stare at you."
"As they did tonight."
"Yes, but in a diner some son of a bitch would decide
to make a play for you, just to show off. 'Hey, Hubert
Ward, introduce me to the girl friend/ And because
they didn't recognize you they'd think only one thing."
"That I was a chippie?"
"Yes. Write your own script. If I had a fight, it'd get
in the papers and maybe I'd be sued. If I didn't fight
they'd all call me yellow. And you'd think I was yellow
for not protecting you. If I try to do anything interesting,
or worth-while, they say it's to get publicity. If I don't do
interesting or worth-while things, I'm just another movie
actor. No brains. No taste. You see, I'm not big enough
yet to be allowed any independence. If you were going to
be staying here, and had dates with me, I'd hear from
"They'd say, 'Lay off that society dame, Hubie.
Start taking Sandra Stafford out.' Sandra's in my next pic-
"Well, do you like her? She's pretty."
"Very pretty — and living with a press agent named
Murray Bax, who happens to be a friend of mine. I was in
a picture with Sandra and I made an honest play for her
till Murray wised me up. He's separated from his wife,
back in New York, and living with Sandra in Laurel Can-
THE BIG LAUGH
"Laurel Canyon? It isn't. It's all culture in their
house. Thousands of books. Symphony records. Socialist
magazines. I'd take her to the Grove, drive her home, and
then Murray and I'd sit and talk till it was time for them
to go to bed. Next day in the papers, Sandra Stafford and
Hubert Ward at the Grove again. So if you read about
Sandra and I having a big romance, that's the romance.
By this time the columnists know about Sandra and Mur-
ray, but they print it anyway. And laugh at me because
they know I'm not getting anything."
"You're not getting anything? Oh."
"I'm not even getting a goodnight kiss."
"But all the actresses aren't living with Murray Baxes."
"Don't be haughty about it."
"Not haughty. Just conventional."
"What do you expect me to do?"
"I expect you to find some Sandra Stafford that isn't
living with a Murray Bax."
"Well, that's what I do do."
"'Do do do, what you done done done be-fore,
baby,' " she sang.
He laughed. "I love you," he said.
"Just as soon you didn't say that," she said.
"Oh. All right," he said.
There was a brief silence, and then she said, "I guess
we ought to think about turning around."
JOHN O HARA
"All right," he said. Expertly he made a U-turn with-
out slackening speed, and they were headed toward Los
Angeles. He began to whistle the Gershwin "Do-Do-Do,"
and he continued to whistle it without being aware of it.
For ten minutes he whistled it.
"I have that record, played by George Gershwin him-
self ," she said.
"What record? Oh, 'Do-Do-Do.' I didn't know he
made a record of it," he said.
"It's a piano solo. Columbia, I think."
"Is that so? I must get it."
"It's not a new record, you know."
"Oh, I can get it through the studio. You can get
anything through the studio."
"How convenient. A Sandra Stafford without a Mur-
"Oh, that's no problem. Ill look around and see
who they have under contract."
"They put them under contract, do they?"
"They must be worn out after seven years."
He laughed. "And you call yourself conventional!
That's the kind of a crack you'd never hear from Ruth
"Thank you very much. I'm sure you intended that
as a compliment."
"Why of course."
"Are we having a quarrel?"
"Of course not, Nina. How could anyone quarrel
with you? How could anyone ant/thing with you? Have
THE BIG LAUGH
you read a book called A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest
"Yes, he comes from Chicago. "
"At the ending he says something about it was like
saying goodbye to a statue."
"I remember. It was — "
"With you it's like saying hello to a statue. No,
we're not having a quarrel. Me, a dumb movie actor? I
don't want to mislead you. I read the book because I'd
like to play the part of Lieutenant Henry."
"I'm sure you'd be very good."
"So am I, but I'm not a big-enough dumb movie ac-
"You will be."
"That man we saw killed tonight. Charley Simmons."
"He knew all about me, and he kept it to himself.
The kind of things he knew about me would have kept
me out of that crowd. They're all up from nowhere, those
people. But they're up. I'm not up. Only part way. And
there are some that are farther up than I am, much far-
ther, but they never made it with that crowd."
"I don't follow you. What are you leading up to?"
"I'm not sure. Not even sure if I'm leading up to any-
"It has something to do with Mr. Simmons not tell-
ing what he knew about you."
"Yes. And with his state of mind. And with my being
a dumb movie actor. I wish we could drive all night and
I could talk to you."
JOHN O HARA
"I'd like to help you, but that's impossible."
"But do you want to stop for a little while and talk?"
"Would you let me? I won't make a pass at you, I
promise you that."
"I know that."
He stopped the car at the edge of a town, under a
street light. He got out and opened his bag and ex-
changed his dinner coat for a tweed jacket that latched
at the throat.
"You were cold?" she said.
"A little." They lit cigarettes, and then, beginning
with the suicide of his father, he told her truthfully the
story of his past ten years. He talked for more than an
hour. They were interrupted by a deputy sheriff in a car.
"You folks in trouble?"
"Just talking," said Hubert Ward. He handed his
driver's license to the sheriff.
"I thought I recognized you," said the sheriff. "You
did right to park under a light. We had some lover's-lane
stickups this past month, you probably read about. Tell
you, Mr. Ward, if you just want to talk I suggest about
a quarter mile down the road you can park in front of our
headquarters and nobody '11 bother you there."
Hubert Ward started his car and followed the sheriff,
who waved to him and drove off. "A nice cop," said Hu-
bert Ward. "Where was I?"
"You had talked yourself into a job in a play. Ruskin
got you a room in a hotel."
He resumed the story and continued until he was
THE BIG LAUGH
able to summarize his motion picture career with the
naming of the pictures and the stars he played with, his
acceptance in the power group, and the onset of restless-
ness and boredom. "And tonight one of the nicest guys
in the whole business is dead. I don't know how much of
it is my fault. Probably a lot."
She made no immediate comment. She smoked her
cigarette. "Most of this was confession," she said. "But
the only part you seem sorry about is Simmons and his
wife, and that's the only part you skipped over. You had
an affair with her. That is, you slept with her just once.
That must have been very recently."
"And that's the only thing I want to ask you about.
When did you sleep with her?"
She nodded. "Yes. I guess I could have told that. She
was very possessive. And she had every right to be, after
being faithful to him all those years. But I don't think
you'd better see her again, unless you plan to marry her."
"I don't plan to marry her. I told you this messy story
because some day I hope to marry you."
"I realized that, halfway through it. Called making
a clean breast of it. Heaven knows there was no other
sane reason for painting such an ugly picture of one-
"No, nothing anybody else says can top what I've
"What a strange way to express it, but I guess that's
JOHN O HARA
«T, • »
"You make me long for the humdrum life of subur-
ban Chicago. The only trouble is, it isn't so humdrum,
not when I think of some of my friends. And maybe it
could have happened to me. If Wayne — my husband —
had ever been untrue to me, I don't know what I'd have
done. If he had been I'd have been so desolated that I
couldn't have gone on living — but you do go on living,
and I've known girls like myself. Terribly in love with
their husbands. Then the husband makes a slip, and the
girl almost seems to have been waiting for that one slip,
to give her an excuse. Naturally I'm thinking of one in par-
ticular. And what an unholy mess she's made of her life.
For five years she'd hardly dance with anyone but her
husband, and then she discovered that he'd had an affair
with an art student. You'd hardly call it an affair. Two
weekends on his boat with a friend of his and another art
student. But it was enough, and who am I to judge?"
"In this case, you are the judge. You're the whole
works. Judge and jury. I told you about myself so that you
"Hubert Ward, you told me about yourself so that —
you sort of tied my hands. You disarmed me. You make
it impossible, or tried to make it impossible, for me to
judge you without making me seem like a prissy old
"No, that wasn't my intention."
"Well, maybe it wasn't your intention. Possibly it
wasn't. But that's the effect. You've made a full confes-
sion of all the bad things about yourself, and therefore
THE BIG LAUGH
I'm supposed to be lenient. But youve been or done just
about everything that in my opinion constitutes being a
complete son of a bitch. The last time I used that expres-
sion was about a gangster that poured gasoline all over
a horse and set fire to it."
"Good company you put me in."
"No, you're not in that company. Just happens I don't
often swear. Anyway, telling me all about your sins and
peccadillos, you came very close to bragging several times.
And no penitence. No penitence except over Mr. Simmons.
Even the Catholics are supposed to feel sorry when they
confess. I got that from your namesake, the Ward girl."
"Well — there I am."
"I know. And you're putting it all up to me. Do I see
you again, knowing all about you? Or don't I? I'm afraid
the answer is no."
"Okay, Nina," he said. He started the engine, which
was set low in the chassis and gave off a heavy sound.
"I'm sorry," she said. "But you know I'm right. We're
He put the car in gear and eased it forward. "You
don't have to say any more," he said. "As a matter of fact,
I don't want to hear any more."
"You won't listen if I talk?"
"This windshield folds down. If I fold it I couldn't
hear you even if I wanted to."
"Not if you went fast, but if you went slowly."
"But we're not going to go slowly. I'll have you home
in a half an hour."
"All in one piece, I hope."
JOHN O HARA
"Don't worry about my driving. I've only killed one
person, so far."
Neither spoke again until he drew up to the Barley
house. They got out and she took off his polo coat and
handed it to him. "That was a horrible thing to say," she
"That you've only killed one person."
"You've been thinking about that all the time?"
"Yes. Goodnight, and goodbye."
"Goodnight and goodbye it is."
"Just a minute, Mr. Ward. Young lady."
They turned in the direction of a flashlight beam.
"Magruder, coroner's office. Few questions I'd like to
ask you relative to what happened tonight." Magruder
turned his flashlight on a badge in a leather case. He put
the case back in his pocket, and directed the beam at
their faces. "All right if we go inside?"
"Why can't we talk out here?" said Hubert Ward.
"We'd be more comfortable inside, but as far as that
goes, Ward, I have a car here and we could go all the way
into L. A. I was making it easier for the young lady and
yourself, but that's the way you want to be, suit yourself."
"Let's go inside," said Nina.
"You're more sensible," said Magruder. "I've been
waiting here for three hours, and I don't mind telling you,
it was no pleasure. You're Mrs. Wayne Stephens, the sis-
ter of Mrs. Dwight Barley. First name Nina. Age twenty-
five. Occupation, housewife. Widow. Home town, Lake
THE BIG LAUGH
Forest, Illinois. Maiden name, Nina Parsons. Ward, I got
everything on you I need. Shall we go in?"
The questions were deceptively simple but numerous,
and Magruder wrote the answers slowly in a notebook.
Then he began to ask the same questions over again,
phrased slightly differently, but apparently essentially a
repetition of the first examination.
"Are you trying to trap us?" said Hubert Ward.
"What makes you say that, Mr. Ward? Why would
I want to trap you?"
"Into giving different answers," said Hubert Ward.
"Nobody's trying to trap anybody here, but why did
you ask me that question?"
"Listen, Magruder, obviously you asked Doris Ar-
lington all these questions, and then you asked us and
you got the same answers."
"Why are you so sure I asked Doris Arlington the
same questions? Or any questions? You been in com-
munication with Miss Arlington?"
"You know damn well I haven't."
"I'm an officer of the law, Mr. Ward, and you don't
have to swear at me. As it happens, there's one or two
things about this death tonight, if we don't get satisfac-
tory answers, this thing could drag on for weeks, making
headlines. On my recommendation to my boss, this thing
could be kept open, depending on his decision in the
matter. Nobody wants that, do they? All right, you just
let me do my work my own way, will you? We don't have
Philo Vance in our office. Just fellows like myself, trying
to protect the public and doing a pretty fair country job
JOHN O HARA
of it. If we don't find any suspicious circumstances, it's
accidental death. But if it isn't accidental death, I don't
have to tell you what the papers will make of it."
"They will anyway," said Hubert Ward.
"How can they? We saw him fall, and he was killed
instantly," said Nina.
"Mm-hmm. All right. Let's go over one or two of these
things once again. The last thing you heard Mr. Simmons
say was something about the railing, putting the railing
somewhere. Can I have that again, Mrs. Stephens? Just
remember it the way it was, don't try to repeat what you
told me. We're all human and memory plays strange
Half an hour later Magruder closed his notebook,
put it in his inside breast pocket, and gently slapped his
coat above the pocket. "I guess that will do it, for tonight
anyway. Understand you were planning to go back East
next week, Mrs. Stephens. Your sister said."
"Yes, can't I go?"
"I don't think there'll be an inquest. I think you can
count on going. We'll let you know definitely some time
tomorrow. Thank you for your cooperation, but you know
how these things are? We have to weigh every morsel,
"I know, Mr. Magruder. I know. My husband was
killed in an accident."
"Yes. I didn't want to bring it up, but I knew that.
This is certainly a nice place your sister has here, and Mr.
Barley. You know I had a brother-in-law played football
against your brother-in-law. My brother-in-law played
THE BIG LAUGH
guard for Minnesota. Two games they were in against
each other. Mr. Barley and I got talking, but I knew he
wanted to go to bed or we'd have been here all night,
swapping stories. Very nice fellow. Well, goodnight."
They saw him to the door, and watched his car light
up and drive away. "There were two of them. Magruder
and someone else."
"I don't know. I never even saw his car, did you?"
"Ill bet they've been wondering where we were."
"I'll make you some coffee," she said.
"No, never mind, thanks. I've caused you enough
trouble. You realize your name is going to be in the pa-
pers. The Chicago papers."
"I was wondering about that."
"It's not going to be so easy to shake me, Nina. You'll
find out when you go back to Chicago. They'll all want
to know how you happened to be there with Doris Arling-
ton and me, just when Charley fell. You said we were
worlds apart. We're not any more. You'll find out."
"I think you exaggerate. But let me give you some
"All right. God knows, I don't want to go."
She went home to Lake Forest on schedule, and a
week later she wrote to him. "You were right," she wrote,
in part. "I don't mind so much for myself, but the other
children, in all probability encouraged by their mothers,
continually ask my daughter for details concerning Hu-
bert Ward . . . My own friends have taken to Iddding'
JOHN O H AR A
me about Hubert Ward, but behind the Tedding' are im-
plications that I do not like. There is no doubt but that
some of them believe that I was a very different person in
California from the one they know here. I don't know
which are worse — the men or the women . . . Have you
started work on the aviation picture?"
Their correspondence was regularly spaced: a letter
from him would be answered a week later by a letter from
her. Each letter had to be to some degree a reply to its
predecessor; the contents of both were chatty and super-
ficial, and expressed nothing of what he or she might
be feeling. They were self-conscious about intimacies. She
admitted that she looked for his name in the Hollywood
gossip columns, and the first break in the regularity of
their correspondence occurred after several of the col-
umns reported that he was having a romance with Pa-
tricia Stanford, the English actress who was making her
American debut in Destroyers on Wings. Hubert Ward
heard nothing for two weeks, and he found that Nina's let-
ters, which of themselves had begun to bore him, had
nevertheless become a part of his life. He guessed the rea-
son for her silence, but he could not tell Nina that Patricia
Stanford was nothing in his young life. Patricia Stanford
was not quite nothing in his young life. She had willingly
cooperated in the studio's suggestion for a publicity ro-
mance with Hubert Ward, and she had immediately as-
sumed that she was to go through all the motions of an
affair. She was not at all reluctant; she had come to Holly-
wood with his name on her private list of four or five ac-
tors whom she would rather like to sleep with. For his
THE BIG LAUGH
part she was beautiful and easy, and her manners and
speech distinguished her from the pretty and easy Amer-
ican girls he played around with. But he discovered that
she was fascinated by scatological humor, particularly
jokes about flatulence and uncontrollable bowel move-
ments, which she exchanged with members of the camera
and stage crews in a spirit of intestinal democracy. The
technicians laughed with her, but when she was not look-
ing they laughed at her and made the gesture of pulling
the chain. Hubert Ward was delighted when she was com-
pelled to break a date with him for a legitimate reason.
"Nobody breaks dates with me," he said, and the affair
was terminated, to the unhappiness of neither party.
He had not gone to the gatherings of the power group
after the death of Charley Simmons. He had stayed away
from Charley's funeral on advice of Doris Arlington.
"Maybe you'll be criticized, Hubie," said Doris. "But
maybe you won't even be missed, there'll be so many
there. And it isn't worth taking a chance."
Doris took a deep breath to keep from losing her
temper. "The chance of Mildred seeing you and making
a scene. Mark her down as an enemy, because that's what
she is. Ill never forget her holding Charley squashed
against those tits of hers, and staring at you. She's gonna
blame you the rest of her life. Stay away from her — unless
you're in love with her, which you're not."
After the convenient ending of the Patricia Stan-
ford affair he had an impulse to see Doris Arlington.
JOHN O HARA
"What for?" said Doris. "I'll be glad to go out with you,
Hubie, but strictly Platonic. I have somebody."
"Hell, I know that. I hear he's part Cherokee."
"All right. Thursday night. Pick me up around eight."
"Beverly Derby? Ill have to reserve a table."
"Not if you come in with me you won't, but all right."
They ordered dinner after Doris had made her en-
trance and distributed graciousness. "I hope you're not
taking me out in the expectation of pumping me about
Ken. How are you getting along?"
"Fine. No practical jokes so far."
"Lulling you into a false sense of security. You go on
location on this thing, don't you?"
"We have a week at the ranch, for some exteriors."
"Will you be coming home nights, or are you staying
"We're staying out there six nights."
"Don't be surprised if you find a snake in your bed.
If I were you I'd carry a pistol."
"I do anyway, in costume."
"Well, if you come across a snake in your bed shoot
the God damn pistol, empty it. Then Ken will think you're
a little crazy and he'll go easy on the jokes."
"I'm glad I didn't try to pump you."
"Oh, that was just a friendly warning. I'll talk about
Ken Downey. What I hate is being pumped. Anyway, it's
usually women that try to pump me about him. Let them
find out for themselves. I did. Now, what's on your mind?"
"You're so smart."
"You bet I am. Is it Mildred?"
THE BIG LAUGH
"I haven't seen her or heard from her. I think she's in
New York, I read somewhere.''
"She is. Charley's estate, and seeing the boy at Yale.
Shell be gone for another two weeks. What about this
English dame, Stanford? I met her the other night and
she told a story I wouldn't tell to a plumber. And it was
that kind of a story. I don't go for dirty stories much
anyway, maybe because everybody expects me to have
a repertory of them and I never remember a one. I'm more
practical about that. If I want to go to the bathroom,
I go. And if I want to go to bed with a man, I do. But I
don't collect stories about it. I mean jokes. I have plenty
of stories, but they're true ones, actual facts. I know one
about you, now that I think of it. Did you get in bed with
Ruth St. Alban one night and it turned out to be her
maid, not Ruth?"
She imitated Ruth St. Alban's voice and enunciation:
"'He was expecting somebody to be there, and I was
just so tired but I couldn't disappoint him. So I asked Lot-
tie if she'd mind, and she was thrilled? If I were a man
I'd prefer Lottie, too."
"I knew the difference right away."
"It makes me wonder, how many guys have thought
Ruth was wonderful with the lights out and it was Lottie
all the time."
"How are you and Lottie since then? How did it af-
fect her manner toward you?"
JOHN O HARA
"Oh, she gives me a little smile when nobody's look-
ing, and I smile back."
"Have you ever gone back for a retake, on purpose?"
"You draw the color line?"
"Lottie has a boy friend, I think he's a middleweight.
Anyway, a prizefighter. Ruth really oughtn't to tell that
story, because the boy friend's very jealous. Lottie made
me promise not to blab, and I never did. I guess I could
go back for a retake, or could have. I wouldn't now, and
anyway let's change the subject."
"What's the matter? There's something eating you."
"It's something I don't know anything about, a new
experience for me. I may be falling in love."
"Am I privileged to know this unfortunate creature?"
"The girl we were with when Charley broke his
"A non-professional. She went back East, didn't she?
Chicago or some place? I thought she went right back."
"She did. I haven't seen her since that night. Spoken
to her on the phone, just before she left. And we've been
writing letters once a week or so, but that's stopped."
"Then let it stop. She's too good for you. You
shouldn't take a girl like that out of her kind of life, away
from her friends, and dump her into this place. And that's
what it would be. Marriage or nothing with her, if I'm
"Good sound advice."
"What if you told her that you'd laid a colored girl?"
"I did tell her just about everything else."
THE BIG LAUGH
"The truth? I've heard that you've been a bad boy,
"You mean in my past?"
"Oh, nothing lately, if you don't count having an affair
with Mildred Simmons."
"Not admitting anything, Doris, but Mildred is surely
old enough to take care of herself. If she had an affair with
anybody, she knew what she was doing."
"I agree with you. I was sore at you, but who am I
"Well, who is anybody to judge, after all?" she re-
"That isn't what I was smiling at. Not the idea, but the
words, the question. The girl I'm in love with said exactly
the same thing when I gave her my life history. She also
said I was a complete son of a bitch."
"You didn't get anywhere, is my guess."
"Did I sleep with her? No."
"What about her husband? Or did I read in the paper
that she was a widow? Yes, I did. She got children?"
"A little girl, six or seven years old."
"Probably. Not poor. It takes money to live in Lake
Forest, doesn't it?"
"It did, I don't know if it still does. Of course the rich
aren't as rich as they used to be. I just lent two thousand
bucks to a man that a few years ago used to spend easily
that much in a month, just calling me long distance. Ill
never see it or riim again, but he spent plenty on me,
JOHN O H AR A
and not just jewelry. He used to take me to Saratoga,
Palm Beach, the opening night of the opera. Kind of
a chump in a way, but a nice chump. A gentleman. He
knew all those Whitneys and Wideners, and he never gave
me any of that horseshit about marrying me. He was
single. But I realize now that he wasn't as rich as the peo-
ple he went around with. He was having a high old time
spending capital, and quite a bit of it he spent on me. So I
let him have the two thousand and he got all choked up
over the phone. He said he'd pay me back five hundred a
year as soon as he got a job, but I know when that will be.
Never. You've been pretty careful with yours, haven't
"Yes. Still paying a hundred and fifty a month rent.
I spend a little on clothes, but not like Georgie Raft
or Menjou. I have no servants. I don't need any. Don't
drink, don't gamble. One car, I bought second-hand from a
writer out at Warners'. His wife wouldn't ride in it. She said
it looked as if a steam-roller ran over it."
"It does. She's right."
"A fine Italian car. If I have to go some place in a
limousine I hire one, and half the time the studio pays for
"And you have no family."
"I have a family, but they won't have me."
"Yeah, I understand. In Hollywood that makes you —
unique I guess is the word. I never knew anybody else out
here that didn't have a family payroll. Your people must
really have it in for you. What have you got? Your father
was in prison or something?"
THE BIG LAUGH
"He committed suicide. I have a mother and a mar-
ried sister, and an uncle. And a lot of cousins, some rich."
"In other words, you're the black sheep. Think of that.
I was the black sheep, too, but I was allowed to return to
the fold. The minute I signed a contract they all moved to
the Coast. My mother, my father, two brothers and their
wives, my sister, and my grandfather that since died."
"And they all went on the payroll?"
"Like hell they did. I said I'd rent them a house in
Van Nuys, but if they wanted to eat they had to work. Not
a nickel from me. They soon got tired of all living in the
same little bungalow in Van Nuys and the men went out
and got jobs. Best thing I could have done for them. I sup-
port my mother and father, but the boys are working and
my sister opened a beauty parlor in Pasadena, and now she
has a husband that she supports. I hardly ever see any of
them. Once in a while a friend of theirs wants to visit a
studio, and as long as it's some lot where I'm not working,
I arrange it for them. I give them a hundred bucks apiece
at Christmas, and the hell with them. My old man keeps a
scrapbook, and gives it to me for Christmas every year.
Clippings about myself. Schallert, Parsons, Harrison Car-
roll. You'll be in it this year, on account of Charley Sim-
mons. My mother bakes cakes for weddings and anniver-
saries in the neighborhood. She charges a litde extra be-
cause the cakes are baked by Doris Arlington's mother.
A hell of a recommendation for a wedding cake, if they
ever stopped to think. But they're all right, my family.
They came here to sponge off me, and I said nuts to that.
When I ran away from Spring Hill, P-A, at the age of six-
JOHN O H AR A
teen, they didn't even bother to get the cops after me."
"Who did you run away with?"
"You won't believe me."
"Sure I will. Who? TeU me?"
"A trombone player in Sousa's Band. He came from
Spring Hill and he was home on vacation, and I had my
first high heels. Black lisle stockings. Middy blouse and
skirt. Took me out to the picnic grove and I got exactly
what I was looking for. I followed him to Chicago and then
he left me. He didn't walk out on me, but I couldn't travel
with the band."
"Didn't your family know you'd gone away with him?"
"I didn't go away with him. I followed him. No, I never
made any trouble for him. Karl Botzhoffer. Romantic
name, wasn't it? But he was a looker. I used to see his
picture in ads for trombones, but I think he must have died.
I asked about him on the set one day when they had a
lot of musicians, and they all seemed to think he was
dead. All the brass section recognized his name right away.
Karl Botzhoffer. Sure. Well, he started me out in my
"I thought Griffith discovered you."
"That's the story. But Karl Botzhoffer discovered me,
in the picnic grove in Spring Hill, P-A. Tender memories.
Mickey Neilan gave me my first job, and then D. W. dis-
covered me. That is, he gave me a small part. Harry Zim-
mermann was the first to put me under contract. I hear
Harry's in hot water. Some Eastern writer is suing him
for sixty million dollars for plagiarism. Or six hundred mil-
lion, I don't know. Harry shouldn't read so many books.
THE BIG LAUGH
Hell read a book by Theodore Dreiser or Sherwood Ander-
son or one of those, and then a week or two later he has a
wonderful idea for a picture. Tells it to Martha Kensington
and Joe MacDuffie. They write an original around the
idea, Harry buys it for the studio, gets a kickback from
Martha and Joe, and lo and behold, they have a big new
picture on the way. A Harry Zimmermann Production, no
less. He gets away with it most of the time, but one of these
days some writer is going to sue for an accounting, instead
of just taking five or ten thousand in settlement. And then
Harry '11 really be in trouble, because no studio wants any
outsider to have a look at their books."
"How do you know all these things?"
"I like money, and the things Ken used to tell me
about studio finances would curl your hair. If you keep
your ears open and look dumb you can learn a lot, too. Par-
ties at Mildred and Charley's, my house, the rest of the
crowd. You knew Joe Ziffrin was getting Charley's old job."
"I thought he was out."
"People thought so because they thought Mildred
would vote her stock against him. The trouble with that
was, Mildred has no stock. U. S. Films, Incorporated, had
options to buy back Charley's stock if and when he died.
And they exercised that option. So Ziffrin snuck off to New
York and London and talked to the principal stockholders,
and in a week or two you'll see the announcement. Poor
Charley must be spinning."
"How do you know this?"
"My part-Cherokee, as you call him. He was talking
to his people in London yesterday and they happened to
JOHN O H AR A
mention it. Then he happened to mention it to me, so I
called my broker this morning. I expect to make a nice
"How about if I bought some?"
"I advise against it. You never play the market, do
"Not so far."
"Don't start now. I bought some U. S. Films stock be-
cause I had a good tip. And I'm going to be told when to get
out. But you won't know when to get out, and I won't
tell you. Playing the market isn't only knowing when to
buy. It's knowing when to sell. Stay out of it, Hubie. I don't
want that on my conscience."
"And don't blab about Ziffrin. There have been rumors,
but only a few know he went to London."
"You're a hell of an advisor."
"I know. You wanted to be told to marry this girl, and
you want to get rich quick in the market. Well, if you want
me to, I'll pay for the dinner. I don't want you to be out four
dollars, poor boy."
"It'll be closer to eight, with the tip. And now where
do we go?"
"Do you want to come back to the house and gab for
a while? What time are you on the set?"
"Tomorrow, half-past seven."
"Means you get up at six."
"Five-thirty. I'll drop you at your house."
She signed some autographs, he signed some but
fewer, and he drove her to her house. He walked to the
THE BIG LAUGH
door with her and she put out her hand. "Thanks, Hubie,
I enjoyed myself," she said.
"So did I, to tell you the truth."
"We could be friends. It might be very good for both
"But if you said come in, I'd come in. And if you said
stay, I'd stay."
"Well, I should hope so. But I'm not going to say it,
now or any other time. On that basis, will you take me out
There was a flashing moment of opportunity, but it
passed. She looked away from him. "Goodnight, Hubie,"
she said, and turned her back.
"Goodnight, Doris," he said.
She closed the heavy door firmly and he went back to
Sometime during the next two or three weeks — one
day, one afternoon, late one night, early one morning — the
actors and the camera and stage crews on the set, and then
the people who did not ordinarily go on the set, and then
the studio, and then a goodly number of the men and
women who made their living in motion picture produc-
tion, and friends of assistant directors, and waiters at the
Brown Derbies, and dealers in second-hand foreign cars,
and high-priced prostitutes, and some of the writers of the
chatter columns, and Vine Street astrologists, and Mildred
Simmons, and a one-legged man who sold newspapers,
and a Catholic priest in a poor parish in downtown Los
JOHN O HARA
Angeles, and Barney Morse, who played the accordion at
stylish parties, and Philip W. Carstairs, who was conduct-
ing a school for acting in a bungalow on North Cahuenga,
and Martin Ruskin in an office in the Bond Building in
New York City — they all began to hear the very first hints
that a miracle was happening on the set of Destroyers on
Wings. No one was saying much; it was too early to tell;
and the rumor was actually a hundred small rumors, not
yet generally known or talked about in large gatherings
or talked about very much in person-to-person conversa-
tions. Sometimes the rumor consisted of a single sentence:
"They say watch out for a performance Hubert Ward is
giving in Ken Downey's picture," and ended there.
But people began to want to go on the set; actors from
other studios as well as men and women on the lot; make-up
men and women, writers under contract, agents of other
people in the Destroyers company. "How it got around I
don't know," said Ken Downey. "But let's keep the
bastards the hell out of here. And that includes you,
Edmund Greenhill had directed a few pictures be-
fore becoming a supervisor. "I have no desire to interfere,
not the slightest," he said. "Put up a sign if you wish. Visi-
"That's what I don't want to do if I can help it. That's
"Well, you're not asking me to have Murray Bax
spread the rumor that Ward stinks. That I won't do."
"That I'm not asking. Just discourage the front office
THE BIG LAUGH
from dropping in, and tell Murray no interviews till we're
"That's easy enough. Personally I hate the son of a
bitch and always did, but if you're getting a picture out of
him . . ."
"It's not only me, Eddie. I hate all actors, not
"That's what I thought."
"And this prick isn't really an actor, but here we go
again, the unbeatable combination, the actor for the part.
Ward has sense enough to realize that I can only do
so much, and after that it's up to him. To play a shitheel, a
real yellow-belly, the actor has to let go. He can't hold back
and protect himself, so the people in Peoria will know he's
only acting. If he does that, he might, as well step out of
character and wink at the God damn camera. But Ward
isn't holding back. He's playing the shitheel that he really
is, as if he just discovered he was a shitheel."
"I could have told him that a long time ago."
"It wouldn't have done any good. He had to discover
it for himself, and maybe be a little proud of it. Maybe
that's it, I don't know. But for instance yesterday, the of-
ficers' mess sequence, where Norman Travis gives him a
punch in the mouth and he doesn't fight back. I said to
Ward, 'Now, Hubie, we're going to come in on you and hold
on you for ten seconds. Ten seconds, that's a long time.
And you're holding your hand to your mouth. I don't want
you to take your hand away from your mouth and look at
the blood. We'll do that later, but for ten seconds it has to
show in your eyes, that you're a coward and can't make
JOHN O HARA
yourself fight back. All the other pilots have seen you take
a punch, and they're waiting to see what you do.' He
stopped me. 1 know, I know, Ken/ he said. 'J ust let me do
it.' So he said he was ready and we began to roll. He got up
from the floor, holding his mouth, and I held on him for six-
teen seconds. And I'm going to use it all. One take, and it
was perfect. Absolutely perfect. He got everything in it
I wanted him to, and more. The shame and the pain. We
faked the punch, of course, but you won't know that when
you see it. You'll think Norman really punched him, not
because of the action, but because of what goes on inside
that face. I wonder if this guy can ever do anything else? I
doubt it, but he won't have to. They're going to remember
this performance for a long time."
"I guess maybe you're right. Norman was in to see
"I knew he would be. He's been trying to talk to me,
too, but I won't let him. He wanted Ward to play the
yellow-belly, and now he's got him. The troublemaker is
Stanford. Norman, all he cares about is top billing and the
most money, but Stanford wised him up about Ward. She's
an actress and she's sore at Ward for giving her the air.
She knows Ward's going to walk away with this opera, and
I think you'd better have a talk with her. She's bad news,
that dame. I'll tell her off when the picture's finished, but
you better talk to her now, today."
"What shall I tell her?"
"Just say to her, 'Listen, you English cunt, you stop
fucking around with Ken Downey's picture.' *
"You can just hear me saying that."
THE BIG LAUGH
"You know, the funny thing is, it might work."
"Maybe, but I couldn't say it to her. I honestly
"I know. But you can get the idea across to her that
Hollywood money is very nice, and she's a long way from
stardom. Her first American picture, and could be her last."
"These are tilings I can say."
From the earliest public exhibitions of the picture
there was never the faintest doubt that Destroyers on
Wings was a hit. The dogfights between German and Royal
Flying Corps planes, the heroism and horseplay of the gal-
lant young pilots, and the romance between Norman
Travis and Patricia Stanford (as the Canadian athlete at
Oxford and the daughter of an English lord, respectively)
were highly satisfactory to the audiences in Glendale and
Long Beach; but the astonishing tributes to acting by Hu-
bert Ward as a cowardly weakling confused the studio.
Comments on acting were rarely made by the Glendale
and Long Beach audiences, and when made they usually
referred to performances by character actors, horses, and
dogs. "Hated Hubert Ward but it was good acting . . .
Hubert Ward a good actor . . . Good acting by Hubert
Ward . . . For acting give me H. Ward. Makes others
look like an amateur . . ." The comment cards from the
Glendale and Long Beach theaters were not strewn about
the theater lobbies; an abnormally high percentage of the
audiences wrote on the cards and registered their critical
convictions by dropping them in the baskets hopefully
provided for the purpose.
"What I always said about Hubie Ward," said Harry
JOHN O H AR A
Zimmermann, now a maker of bread-and-butter Westerns
at RKO. "A fortune for the studio that put him in the
Eddie Greenhill telephoned Hubert Ward after the
Glendale and Long Beach previews. "If you don't have an
engagement tomorrow — next day, come have luncheon
with me in my office?"
"Fine, Eddie. Tomorrow?"
"Good. Excellent. Excellent, Hubie."
"Now is it all right for me to drive my car on the lot?"
"Why, of course, Hubie. Ill issue instructions."
"No. Just countermand the old ones, that said I
couldn't bring my car on the lot."
"You'll have a special place of your own, with your
name on it. Just say where you want it and itll be there
tomorrow. Now don't make it too tough, Hubie."
"How about next to the bootblack's stand?"
"That's reasonable. I was afraid you were going to
want Norman Travis's place, and that's in his contract."
"Oh, I wouldn't do that, Eddie. I'm not a star yet."
"A mere technicality now," said Greenhill.
Luncheon began with caviar and champagne and
GreenhhTs disappointment that Hubert Ward did not like
caviar or champagne. "But you go right ahead, Eddie,"
said Hubert Ward.
"Well, being's it's open," said Greenhill. "I hope you
like filet mignon."
THE BIG LAUGH
"That's what I ordered."
"And what do you want me to do, Eddie? Why am I
"You can be blunt, all right. Well, why not? No use
beating about the bush, they say. Hubie, New York is beck-
oning to Hubert Ward. It's in your contract you have to go,
but forget that. You been in the business long enough now
that you can foresee that the studio's going to renegotiate
your present ticket. We want you happy and content."
"I know. And my present contract expires in January.
We're on the last option, Eddie. Which is why you didn't
mind putting me in Destroyers on Wings as a miserable
"Well, did it turn out good or did it turn out bad? Re-
sults are what you have to take into consideration, Hubie.
This lot is where they gave you your best role of your
"Accidentally. And my worst, one after another. I
never got the girl if there was a big star in the picture. And
if I got the girl it was never anybody like Doris Arlington or
Ruth St. Alban."
"Be big, Hubie. Be big, don't be picayune. This studio
is your home lot, your home base. You don't want to be
picayunie now, especially now. Wouldn't you rather be the
king here, where you made so many pictures, good, bad
and indifferent? That's the way I'd feel about it if I were
"Fortunately you're not me," said Hubert Ward.
"But I don't want to talk contract. I pay a man ten percent
JOHN O HARA
for that, and it's a long time since he earned it. What about
"Beckoning. They're getting calls for you. Interviews.
Publicity. Your contract says you have to go if we tell you
to, but that's not what I'm doing. We won't make you. We
won't invoke the contract. But on the other hand, all ex-
penses paid. The shows. The night spots. And you'll have it
all to yourself. By that I mean, Hubie, if you say you'll do it,
we won't send Norman or Stanford. It's all yours, a clear
field. Murray Bax says this'd be your first trip since you've
been in pictures. Tell you what we could do. Stanford and
you I know were pretty cozy there for a while. If you de-
cided you wanted to take her with you — we'd pay her ex-
"Thanks, but no thanks."
"Well, just an idea. There'll be plenty waiting for
you there in New York, especially with the build-up we'll
give you before you get there."
"What about Chicago?"
"Listen, Chicago, sure! I didn't even think to suggest
it. We didn't even dare to hope for Chicago, but if you'll
go — mister!"
"All right. A week in New York, and a week in
"We'll get to work on that right away. The week of
the twentieth in New York, and the week of the twenty-
seventh in Chicago?"
"Any way you like. How about Cleveland? Detroit?
St. Louis? Hubie, you know we could book you into
THE BIG LAUGH
theaters for personal appearances in all those places and
you could make yourself a nice piece of change."
"No. A week in Chicago, a week in New York. No
The photographers and the press kept him well over
an hour in the trainshed in Chicago, and the grateful
studio publicity people said no star, not even Joan Craw-
ford, had been so cooperative. He posed until the photog-
raphers ran out of ideas, and by the time he had had a
bath the early editions were delivered to his room and he
was on Page One of them all, with pictures, stories, or
both. The studio had assigned a publicity man, Frank
Terry, as all-around equerry.
"This phone's going to be ringing like this all day,"
said Terry. "But 111 brush them off for you."
"There's one I don't want you to brush off. If a Mrs.
Stephens phones, I want to speak to her."
"Oh, Christ. A lady by that name did call. She said it
was personal, but they all say that."
"Did she leave a number or anything?"
"Can you get me a car that I can drive myself?"
"Sure, but how do you think you're going to get out
of the hotel? They're out there in the corridor now. High
school kids. Elderly women. Some queers."
"Before the picture opens?"
"Oh, we did a job here in Chicago, Mr. Ward. If you
gave us a little more time you'd be the biggest thing since
JOHN O HARA
"Get me a car. Something like a Buick coach, or a
Terry arranged for the car. "This is some private thing
and I guess you don't want me along, but 111 tell you what
we do. We go to the elevators. Don't wear an overcoat or a
hat. The fans will follow you. We wait for an Up elevator.
We go up a couple floors, get off, and then take a Down
elevator. Well go all the way down to the Grill without
stopping. They know me here. And you can wait down
there some place while I get you your hat and coat. The
car's parked at the side entrance."
"Never mind my hat and coat."
Hubert Ward evaded the fans and followed Terry's
plan. He got to the car without being recognized, simply by
holding a handkerchief to his nose. And then he drove to
She was home. A maid answered the doorbell and
said, "My goodness. Ain't you Hubert Ward the movie star?"
"Yes. I'd like to see Mrs. Stephens."
It was not necessary to announce him. Nina, in a
blue silk-and-wool suit, came out of a side room with a
sheaf of papers in her hand, an opened fountain pen
clenched in her teeth. She saw him and at first she frowned,
unable to trust her recognition of him.
"Hello," he said.
"Why hello. Hello. 9 ' She smiled. "It is you."
"It's me." He went to her and put his arms around her
and kissed her, although they had never kissed before.
"Let me put these things down," she said. She laid
the papers and pen on a table, and with her hands now
THE BIG LAUGH
free she put her arms around him and held him close, and
put back her head to be kissed again. She held on to his
hand and led him to the room from which she had first
"Did you know that I telephoned you?" she said.
"Yes I did. Did you know that the only reason I came
to Chicago was to see you?"
"No, I didn't."
"Well, it was."
"I was just checking some bills for The Children's Aid
Society," she said, for something to say.
"Did they come out right?"
"I don't know. I haven't finished. How long are you
going to be in Chicago?"
"As long as it takes me to persuade you to leave it."
"Well — goodness." She sat on the sofa.
"You stopped writing to me," he said.
"Yes." She brushed something off her skirt. "Yes, I
"But just now, when you saw me — "
"I know. I know," she said.
"That's the only reason I came to Chicago."
"Well, I don't know. I really don't know."
"Yes you do, Nina."
"I thought about it. I admit I thought a lot about it.
But then I read about you and some English actress, and
that brought me to my senses."
"I don't get the Chicago papers. Was there anything
in them about you? You and some meat-packer, some stock-
JOHN O HARA
"I've seen a few people, if that's what you mean. I've
been going out more."
"You've completely lost your tan."
"Yes, I know. We're going to Florida next week and
I'll get it back."
"Who's going to Florida?"
"Well, actually just me, but there I'm meeting some
friends of mine that have a boat, and we're going cruising."
"Who's the man?"
"Oh — a lawyer from downstate."
"Then I have practically no time at all, have I?"
She had recovered her poise. "That was just something
"You know better than that."
She shook her head. "Different worlds, Hubert. Not
so much different worlds as wanting to live different ways.
I was in town for lunch today and I saw your picture."
"It's in every paper in Chicago. I made sure none of
them missed me. I wanted to make sure you didn't fail to
be informed of my presence in your great city."
"Only saw the one paper. But then when I telephoned
you I was rather glad you didn't come to the phone."
"What would you have said if I had come to the
"Oh — welcome to Chicago. How are you. Have you
seen my sister. Chit-chat."
"It was much better this way."
"Was it? Yes, it was more honest. But honesty isn't
always the best policy. It isn't always the only policy. You'll
be here a few days and I'm leaving next week. If you'd
THE BIG LAUGH
telephoned me I'm not sure I'd have seen you, and that
would have been that."
"Do you love me, Nina?"
"I haven't heard you say that you love me."
"But I do."
"Yes, I love you. At least I guess it's love. The cus-
tomary symptoms. I thought about you all the time, even
when I didn't want to."
"Regardless of the messy things in my life, as you
"No, not regardless of them. But in spite of them. I
don't happen to want messy things in my life, but they hap-
pen to friends of mine, people I like. And in your life I
guess it's par for the course. Hollywood. I guess you
couldn't avoid it if you wanted to — and why should you
want to? If women, girls, want to make fools of themselves.
It's very easy for a woman to get a man, for a while at least.
But how long does that last? And is it worth it? It wouldn't
be to me."
"Did you have an affair with the lawyer from down-
"No. But he'll be on the cruise, and I knew what I was
doing when I said I'd go."
"You wouldn't consider that messy?"
"He's asked me to marry him. And there's no very
good reason why I shouldn't."
"You don't love him."
"No, but I'm sure I would, eventually."
"Then I got here just in time."
"I'm not sure that you did, Hubert. You may think me
JOHN O HARA
a cold-blooded woman if you like, but it doesn't really mat-
ter what you think of me, does it? This man, I know, thinks
I had an affair with you, for instance. A lot of people here
do. But in those matters I don't really care much what peo-
ple think. It's what I think that matters. I can have a man if
I want one. Or men. They try. I'm not repulsive. And I
will. I know what happiness there is with a man. And the
physical. I'm a very healthy person. But I don't want just
the physical without the rest, or the companionship with-
out the physical. I have a very high opinion of myself and
I want to keep it. I think it was instilled in me by my father.
He was quite a ladies' man, but possibly for that very rea-
son I believed what he told me about promiscuity. Con-
sequently I've been to bed with exactly one man in my
whole life. Some of my best friends don't believe that, but
they can think what they please."
"You were married very young."
"Yes, I was eighteen. But I'm sure I could have held
out much longer. I was completely faithful to my husband,
and I didn't go dashing about when I was free to, after he
"Well, do you want to risk having Chicago convinced
that you had an affair with me?"
"Meaning, will I see you again? Yes. I have two dinner
engagements toward the end of the week, possibly three."
"With the lawyer from downstate?"
"One of them is with him and possibly the third. He
has to finish up some last-minute work."
"Will you have dinner with me the other nights?"
"If you want me to."
THE BIG LAUGH
"That's what I came here for."
"Yes, it'll be nice to be with you/
"You know what I'm going to do, don't you?"
"I guess I do, but I'll be on my guard."
"And you won't mind the publicity? There'll be plenty
"I'd almost rather have it than secrecy. By the way,
what did you ever do to a man called Phil Sturtevant? He
works for Time, and let me tell you, he certainly cautioned
me about you."
"He's the one I gypped out of a month's rent. Remem-
ber my life story?"
"You must have done something more than that to
make him hate you so much."
"I did. I humiliated him in front of a couple of dames."
"Oh, then I can understand it. I never knew what to
say to him."
"Did you defend me, Nina?"
"You could call it that, I suppose. He was so vague.
He just said you were the worst man in New York, had a
terrible record going back to prep school. But he was
vague about it, and I said you can't say a man is the worst
man in New York without giving some details. All he'd say
was that if I was infatuated with you, there was no point in
"Were you infatuated with me?"
"Actually he said hypnotized."
"Were you hypnotized?"
"Maybe he did say infatuated, too. Yes, he did."
"Were you infatuated, or hypnotized?"
JOHN O HARA
"Well, he seemed to think I was."
"And that's all the answer I'm going to get?"
"You want everything. I've already told you I love
you. No, I wasn't hypnotized or infatuated. I have much
too much sense for that."
"It doesn't show much sense to love me, though."
"Oh, yes it does. Love happens, and when it does, a
sensible person admits it. Not to admit it would be very
foolish indeed. That could get you into all sorts of trouble,
"And you'd never deceive yourself?"
"I hope not. I've always tried not to."
On that basis, and almost on that basis alone, she mar-
ried him. He was due in New York on the following Mon-
day, but on Friday afternoon they drove to the town of
Peru, Indiana, where her uncle had a sizable farm. "My
father's brother Bert. He's a widower," she said. "He raises
standard-breds and races them at all the state fairs. He
was never very fond of Josephine, but he liked me."
"Why are we picking him?"
"Because he's the only member of the family living
that would understand my doing this."
"When you see him you'll know."
A wooden arch painted white stood over the entrance
to the Mississinewa Springs Farms, Bert J. Parsons, Prop.
The driveway, lined with sycamores, was half macadam,
on one side, half dirt road. A sign read: Autos Keep to
Hard Surface — Drive Slow — No Horn Blowing. "Here the
horse is king," said Nina. Some brood mares in foal
THE BIG LAUGH
looked up as Hubert Ward drove his rented Buick coupe
to the main house, and in another white-fenced paddock
some aged geldings stood undisturbed. At the top of the
steep front-porch steps a man waited to greet the new-
comers. "Uncle Bert," said Nina.
Bert Parsons was in his late fifties, early sixties. The
veins in his nose and cheeks had come to the surface so that
he seemed to be wearing a blue domino. He was wearing a
slouch hat, an expensive suede windbreaker, whipcord
jodhpurs and mud-caked jodhpur boots, and a pair of old-
fashioned motoring gauntlets. From a cord around his
neck hung a pair of goggles, and he had a half-smoked
cigar in a corner of his mouth. As the car stopped he put
the cigar in a concrete jardiniere and came down the steps.
"Hello, Nina, girl," he said. His voice was surpris-
ingly gentle, his twang Indianan.
"Hello, Uncle Bert,* she said. She kissed him. "This is
another Bert. Hubert Ward."
"Well, it'd better be after what you told me over the
phone. Howda do, Mr. Ward. You won't want your car, I
expect. Leave it where it is and a manll take it back in
the garage." He shook hands with Hubert Ward. "Come on
in, will you?"
Everywhere, in the hallway and in the rooms they
saw, were pictures of harness horses, in and out of sulkies;
an umbrella stand full of driving whips, and in the hall
and the rooms glass-fronted cases of silver trophies and
rosetted ribbons; silvered racing plates over the doorways;
photographs of finishes in front of state-fair grandstands;
and in the hallways and livingrooms, tall brass spittoons on
JOHN O HARA
large circular rubber mats. It could almost have been a
country hotel. A rubber runner, rather than a carpet or
rug, lay in the center hall, and the rooms to right and left
had no appearance of being lived in; but Bert Parsons
led his guests to the rear of the house and a room that was
smaller than the others. Here the profusion of trophies
and racing and horse mementos left literally no empty
space on walls or mantelpiece, and this room was carpeted,
had a fire already burning in the fireplace, a silver-leafed
whiskey bottle and glasses on a taboret, a blind old Aire-
dale that did not move when the newcomers entered. The
leather chairs were worn smooth; a double-barrel Purdey
gun and a box of shells rested on top of the desk; the carpet
was stained by untrained dogs, spilt whiskey, gun oil,
tobacco juice. "Only warm room downstairs right at the
moment," said Bert Parsons. "Rest of the housell warm
up in about a half an hour. I don't have but very few fel-
lows stay here overnight. If they come a distance, yes. But
most of my visitors are from around here, and they'd just
as soon go home nights and I'd just as soon have them,
time they get a snootful of my liquor. Horse people are
either teetotalers or heavy drinkers, there's no in-between.
How about you two? This is pre-Prohibition bourbon
whiskey, and I've got enough to last me the rest of my life,
so don't hold back on that account." He handed Nina and
Hubert Ward shot glasses of whiskey and poured one for
himself. "Success to your marriage, happiness to the bride,
congratulations to the groom. Three toasts in one, I guess
you'd call that. Drink up . . . Nina, you know where to
go if you feel the need."
THE BIG LAUGH
"I'm comfortable/' said Nina.
"Not just now, thanks."
"Good," said Parsons. He now took off his hat and
windbreaker, and the others took off their coats and hats.
"Have a seat. I made all the arrangements, Nina. I have a
fellow coming out from Peru with the papers for you to
sign, and don't worry. I warned him against talking to
any newspaper people. Six o'clock Reverend Zeebach said
he'd be here, and he's like myself, a widower, so he won't
be liable to tell his wife and let the cat out of the
bag. There's nothing much to it, to tell you the truth. I
know all these people around here, and they know me. I
don't ask many favors, so when I want something I usually
get it. Thought you might like to have a woman stand up
for you, Nina, so I asked Mrs. Broadbill. You remember her
from when you used to come here summers. She does
the cooking for the men on the place and she's absolutely
"I remember her very well."
"Well, she was only too glad when I asked her. Tell
you the truth, she cried a little. Now as to tonight and
while you're here, I got Mrs. Broadbill to get things ready
in the cottage and make it livable. I have men in and out
here all day talking business, and in the cottage you'll
have your privacy. The cottage, Mr. Ward, is a little house
I built when I had a superintendent here, before I took over
myself. It's small, but I have it fixed up pretty nice. A lot
of famous people have spent the night or longer there. Or
JOHN O HARA
I should say, owners of famous horses. The people aren't
"It's a darling place," said Nina.
"I always told Nina she could stay there any time she
wanted to, but this is the first time she ever took advantage
of the invitation."
"But we used to stay there when I was little."
"Yes. I didn't mean you'd never been there."
This man, smelling of whiskey and cigars and of the
horse barn, was behaving with a strange delicacy, and
Hubert Ward began to see why Nina had chosen him as
well as his place for their elopement. He could refer ex-
plicitly to the coming night, to their desire for privacy, but
without embarrassment to them or to himself. He was as
impersonal as he might have been in discussing the mat-
ing of one of his mares with one of his stud horses, but it
was a superficial impersonality; underneath it was real af-
fection for Nina — and distrust of Hubert Ward. Again, as
though Nina were a favorite mare, and Hubert Ward a
stallion from a distant farm and without papers. Hubert
Ward knew one thing: that this was no place where Nina
would bring him for any pre-marital experimentation.
Bert Parsons was a strait-laced old rounder.
"They'll be here any minute. Reverend Zeebach's driv-
ing out with the fellow from the license bureau. Yes, and
here's Mrs. Broadbill herself."
Mrs. Broadbill, with a silent respectful nod to Bert
Parsons, went directly to Nina and put her arms around
her and kissed her.
"Little Nina," she said. "I'm so pleased for you."
THE BIG LAUGH
"This is Hubert," said Nina.
Tm pleased to meet you. You're getting a fine, fine
girl. A fine girl. A fine woman, I should say/'
"I know/' said Hubert Ward.
"Well, just so you do," said Mrs. Broadbill, with an
attempt at humor that did not come off. "The Reverend
not here yet, Mr. Parsons?"
"Be here any minute now. Can I offer you a drink of
"You can offer it, knowing I won't drink it. Wine is
what you ought to have for a wedding."
"I made Uncle Bert promise not to do anything like
that. No fuss and feathers. All we want is the legal cere-
mony, don't we, Hubert?"
"I want whatever you want," said Hubert Ward.
"I had a big wedding, with Wayne," said Nina. "And
I don't believe in going through all that the second time."
"Looking at it that way, I agree with you," said Mrs.
Broadbill. "But what about your supper? I stocked the
kitchen in the cottage, but — "
"I'll cook our supper. Really, we want this as simple
as possible. And as quiet."
"Well, your Uncle Bert can take care of that if any-
body can. Nobody's gonna go against his wishes and your
wishes were always his wishes."
"Sit down, Mrs. Broadbill. You're getting all excited,"
said Bert Parsons. "This is just two people complying with
the law, that's the way to look at it."
Mrs. Broadbill sat down. "It's no such thing, but if
that's the way you want to look at it. It's our Nina getting
JOHN O HARA
married, whether it's in some big church in Chicago or
your back office. But if that's the way you want to look at
There was silence lasting seconds that threatened to
become oppressive, but the doorbell rang and Bert Parsons
went to answer it, returning with two men and wearing a
coat. Either of them could have been the clergyman; it
turned out the young one was. The court clerk, one Seaver,
was the most nervous person in the room, overawed by
Bert Parsons and by the movie star bridegroom. "I made
this out in the name of Richard H. Ward," he said. "What
Mr. Parsons told me to do."
"That's my real name."
"Well, I guess that'll disguise it. You both sign here,
and here, and here. Ma'am, you keep this, Reverend, this
is for you. That's about it, I guess. You want me to wait out-
side, Mr. Parsons?"
"Wait out in the hall."
"Oh, he can stay," said Nina. "That is, if he'd like to."
"Like very much to," said Seaver.
The Reverend Mr. Zeebach then conducted the cere-
mony, hardly more than five minutes of liturgical language
at the speed he read it by prearrangement with Bert Par-
sons. "You may kiss the bride," he said, and smiled, shook
hands with Hubert Ward and stuffed in his pocket the
envelope the groom passed to him. The bride was kissed
by her new husband, by her uncle, and by Mrs. Broadbill.
She shook hands with Zeebach and Seaver.
"Thank you, gentlemen," said Bert Parsons, to dismiss
the cleric and the clerk, and they left.
THE BIG LAUGH
"Well," said Mrs, Broadbill. "All over so quick, you
hardly realized. Do you feel all right about it being so
"Of course I do."
"A president of the United States was sworn in with
no more fuss than that. Calvin Coolidge," said Bert Parsons.
"Well, he made a good president," said Mrs. Broad-
bill. "And you can take that for a good sign, Nina. And
Mr. Ward. I guess I won't be needed any more, either."
"Nope," said Bert Parsons. "Lights on down in the cot-
tage and all that?"
"Ready for occupancy."
"All right, then you can go," said Parsons.
"If you need me while you're here, I'm easy to find,
Nina. I hope 111 see you before you go."
"Oh, you will, Mrs. Broadbill. Drop in tomorrow after-
"No, I won't drop in, but if you phone me."
Parsons addressed the married couple. "Your baggage
is all in the cottage, but it won't be unpacked. I guess you'll
just want to walk down there by yourselves."
"Yes. And thank you for everything, Uncle Bert."
"I'd have done more, but this is all you wanted. This
is a fine girl, Mr. Ward. They don't come any better than
"I haven't seen any better."
"I'm sure of that, all right. Well, bundle up, there's
snow in the air. See you tomorrow, I guess." Parsons kissed
his niece at the front door, and closed it when once she
and Ward were together on the path to the cottage.
JOHN O HARA
In the cottage kitchen they opened the door of the
Frigidaire. "We have quite a choice. Mrs. Broadbill must
be expecting us to stay at least a week. Well, my husband,
would you like a steak? Chops? Chicken? Just say what
"Whatever is easiest and takes the least time/'
"Steak. How soon do you want it?"
"Well, I'd like to unpack and take a bath, wouldn't
"While you're doing that 111 get supper ready, and 111
unpack and have my bath after supper."
He put his arms around her waist and she looked up at
him and smiled. "Let's wait," she said.
"You're not nervous?"
"I don't think I'm as nervous as you are."
"You're absolutely right."
"You heard what Mrs. Broadbill said. You've got a
fine woman. Did you notice she corrected herself, from girl
"I did notice. But I've never been married before."
"Still, I don't think either one of us is a virgin," said
Nina. "Let's have our baths and our supper, and then let
nature take its course."
"I'm not teasing you. You'll see."
"That's a very teasing remark."
"Yes, I guess it is. I didn't mean it to be. Go take your
bath, get into your pajamas and dressing gown, and I
promise you I won't put it off after supper. I confess, I am a
THE BIG LAUGH
little nervous. I want to get used to the idea of being with
you. We've had very little time alone together."
"I love my ring. How were you able to get a wedding
ring without causing comment?"
"Because I'm a great natural liar. I told Frank
"Your "publicity man?"
"Wait till you hear this. I told Terry that my mother
had never had a really nice wedding ring, and I wanted
to surprise her with one when I got to New York. 'And you
know how it is, Frank,' I said. If I go to one of those New
York stores and buy a wedding ring, everybody will jump
to conclusions.' He bit. He swallowed it. I told him the
kind of ring I wanted, gave him the cash, and there it is."
"I wonder about your mother. Shouldn't we call
"We talked about that driving down from Chicago."
"I know, but don't you feel differently now? I do.
Your getting the ring that way, Hubert — you could be so
thoughtful. That would have been a very thoughtful thing
to do for your mother. It shows that you are naturally a
thoughtful person. And kind. You are."
"Well, I hope you say that ten years from now."
"It will be just as true then as it is now. They never
had the chance to see that side of you. All they saw was a
wild kid that was making trouble for them. And for him-
"Don't expect things that aren't there, Nina."
JOHN O HARA
"I don't. But don't you, either. We love each other
with all the bad things showing, your naughtiness, and
my puritanism. I'm not as good as I'm supposed to be, and
you're not as wicked as you've told me you are. But
wicked you fell in love with good me, and good me fell in
love with wicked you. We mustn't try to change that —
at least not too soon. After we've been married a while the
too-good and the too-bad will mix . . ."
"What? What are you thinking?"
"They will mix. They'll mix to form our children. Go
take your bath. You can see what's on my mind."
They had their supper in the kitchen, a cheerful room.
"I have no dessert for you, so you have your cigarette and
coffee and I'll do the dishes."
"I'll help you with the dishes."
"No, you'll only be in the way. You wont be in the
way, but you'd hate it and I'm very quick at it. Talk to me
while I'm doing them. Tell me more about Ken Downey,
your director. Whenever you talk about him there's some-
thing in your voice that's never there any other time."
Hubert Ward talked about Ken Downey and she fin-
ished the dishes before he had completed an anecdote
about the director. She sat with him until the end of the
anecdote. "You see," she said, "when you talk about
Downey you have to tell me much worse things than you
ever told me about yourself. Have you ever thought of
"Well, no, but nobody ever said Ken was Little Lord
Fauntleroy. Several people have threatened to kill him. I
mean kill. One man was crippled for life in one of his pic-
THE BIG LAUGH
tures, and he's had I don't know how many lawsuits. But
he's a genius."
"A motion picture genius. You bandy that word about
too freely. When I think of genius, I think of Leonardo da
Vinci or Shakespeare. Beethoven. Brahms. They've stood
the test of time. No movie has."
"I can't argue with you on that."
"I know," she said. She put her hand on his. "And you
don't want to argue and neither do I. I'm going to take my
bath now. I won't be very long. Sit in the livingroom and
read the latest Standard Bred Journal, or whatever you
can find. Or maybe something on the radio."
He waited in the livingroom, listening to the tub fill-
ing, then to the gurgling pipe sucking the water down
when she finished her bath; but he did not hear her come
in the room. She was in her bare feet and a nightgown and
she was standing in front of him before he knew she was
in the room. The nightgown was shaded dark at the
points of her breasts and between her legs, and when he
held out his hands to her she knelt in front of him, waiting
for his first words, but he did not speak.
"Aren't you going to say anything?" she said.
"I wish I could," he said.
She slipped the top of the nightgown off her shoulders.
"Still nothing?" she said.
He shook his head.
Now she stood up and stepped out of the nightgown
and held her arms to her sides.
"No words," he said. "No words good enough."
JOHN O HARA
She half smiled, contentedly. "No words are better
than the things you said to other girls," she said.
"By saying nothing I said the right thing?"
"Not quite, but all right." She put out a hand to him.
"Now me what?"
"Get rid of those things that are in the way. Called
pajamas. Here, let me." She unbuttoned the coat, then
pulled the drawstring. "And please take off those socks and
those slippers. Don't hold out on me." They stood apart for
a moment, but then they touched each other. "Oh, yes,"
she said. "So nice, and I want you so, and you want me,
too. I wonder how I can tell that. I wonder how I can tell.
You haven't said anything."
"But you can tell, can't you?"
"Yes. How can you tell?"
"I have ways," he said.
"Tell me about your ways, but not in here." She
grasped his hand and they went back to the bedroom and
she lay down. The playful mood covering her fear of awk-
wardness was now gone. "Now," she said.
"Yes, inside me." She lay still and helped him with
her hand and then, watching his face she waited, and
feeling him she commenced to smile but almost im-
mediately she wanted him more than she wanted to pro-
long pleasure and their minds lost control of their actions.
"Darling, darling," she said.
"Yes. Lovely," he said.
She brushed her hair back off her forehead and her
THE BIG LAUGH
head lay with one cheek on the pillow. Her eyes were
nearly closed. "Was it lovely for you, darling?" she said.
"Oh, yes. Was it for you?"
"Oh, if you only knew."
"Do you? Can it be as lovely for a man? I hope so.
Oh, I do hope so. Men are so nice, to do this for women."
"It works both ways — when it works."
"Yes. Did I surprise you?"
"I did? How?"
"Everything you did surprised me."
"Do you know why I was so bold?"
"You mean coming into the livingroom? Yes, I think
I know. You were timid."
"That's not all, though. I wanted to see you, so I
thought if I let you see me first. Oh, I don't know. Maybe
that's not true. Maybe I just wanted you to see me. You've
looked at me a lot, but I've always been dressed before.
Yes, I've always known when you were looking at me that
way. You know, you can look me straight in the eye and
still be staring at my bosom. Do you know that?"
"I guess that's true."
"But you've never even seen half of my bosom till to-
night. Will you always stare at my bosom, Hubert? Please?"
"Your bosom, and elsewhere."
"My elsewhere requires your imagination."
"Not any more. My memory. My imagination before,
but not any more. Just my memory."
"Or, you can always ask to see it and I'll let you."
JO HN O H AR A
"At a diplomatic reception in the White House?"
"Absolutely. We can always go behind a potted palm
and 111 let you see it. Just for a second, of course. And if
it's too dark, well, you can feel it."
"Just for a second, of course."
"Two or three seconds. Not any longer, though, I
guess. Not at a diplomatic reception."
"You don't think that would be very diplomatic?"
"No. And I'm so receptive I might overdo it. With you.
Not with anybody but you."
"You re damn right you won't."
"Are you going to be jealous?"
"I've always prided myself on not being jealous. But
I was so jealous of that Simmons woman, and I'd only just
met you. As a matter of honest fact, if I'd been completely
truthful with myself that day, I watched you on that div-
ing-board and the things I thought I won't even tell you
"Why? Why not?"
"I will, when they happen. Do you feel married?"
"Neither do I. Let's pretend we're not."
"It's so ridiculous that I wouldn't do this last night,
and yet I wouldn't have. I never would have, I don't think.
But now that we are legally man and wife, I feel quite im-
moral. I suppose what I mean is that I feel very sexy, and
THE BIG LAUGH
I've always been brought up to believe that being sexy was
immoral. No Reverend Zwieback can change that so
"What about the lawyer you were going away with?"
"Do you know something awful? Suddenly he's be-
come like a picture in a magazine. Not even an under-
wear ad. Mr. Good Citizen, never seen without his clothes
on. Wears a suit to bed. To think I almost went away with
him. And now I realize that if I had, I couldn't have mar-
ried him, and all my moral principles would have been
shattered. I'd have slept with him, then not married him,
and maybe that would have happened quite a few times.
You saved me from that, darling."
"Oh, I always knew I'd be a good influence some-
"Joke about it, but it's true."
"What about your husband — Wayne?"
She was silent.
"I withdraw the question," he said.
"It had to be asked in a conversation like this, some-
time if not now. I'll answer the question. I loved him, loved
and adored him. But in seven years with him I was never
the way I've been with you tonight. I never looked at
him on a diving-board and thought the things I thought
about you. And incidentally, he was a much better diver
than you. But if he'd stayed alive and you came along — I
don't know. Maybe you would have wrecked that mar-
riage. But you don't want to wreck it now, do you? It was
good, and it never hurt you. It would have stayed good
JOHN O HARA
if you hadn't come along. And I need that marriage in
bringing up my daughter."
"I want to ask you one more question, if I may."
"Why did you only have one child?"
"The wedding night, when questions get asked," she
"They don't have to be answered now."
"I was prepared to answer the question, but not to-
night. I thought you'd ask other kinds. How far did I let
"You're thinking back to your other wedding night,"
"Yes. He asked a lot more questions than you have.
Every boy I ever kissed — there weren't many. Had any of
them put his hand on me. Had I put my hand on any of
them. Did I ever make a boy come. Did boys ever make
me come. He wanted to know everything, and I told him."
"Did you resent his questions? It sounds that way."
"I guess I must have, but not very much. I was think-
ing so much about going the limit for the first time. I didn't
know how it was going to be, and I told him everything
because I wanted to get on with it. It was odd, his asking
all those questions. He was so inexperienced himself. We
really had to learn everything together."
"And you finally did learn everything?"
"No. Far from everything, from him. The night before
he left for Detroit it was practically the same as the first
week we were married. But I adored him. Everybody did,
but he was mine."
THE BIG LAUGH
"How do you know there's more than what he showed
"Young wives talk among themselves. Girls at school
talked among themselves. And my own instincts to do
other things, but he'd always stop me. You don't know
much about him. He was very religious. He taught a class
in Sunday School long after we were married. He was the
kind that you would have called a Christer, but you never
would have dared say it to his face."
"I'm not going to say anything against him, but I'm
sure I wouldn't have liked him and he wouldn't have liked
"You'd have liked him if there were no girls around.
Men gravitated toward him. He was a marvelous ath-
"A man's man — only in Hollywood that means a
"He wasn't that."
"But I asked you before, why did you only have one
"We didn't. We had two. We had a little boy, our
second child. People outside the family think he was born
dead, but he wasn't. He lived nearly a year. He was abnor-
mal. He could never be anything else. There was no hope
"They even let me think he was born dead and they
took him away, but then Wayne told me — oh, weeks later.
And he didn't want me to have any more children."
"But your daughter is perfect."
JOHN O H AR A
"Yes. That was luck. And the little boy was bad luck.
The doctors said we could produce normal children, but
Wayne was afraid of what would happen to me if we
didn't. His mother had an uncle that wasn't quite right,
physically and I guess mentally. He had no testicles, and
he was shaped like a woman. I never saw him, and nei-
ther did Wayne, but apparently this man, or half-man,
lived in a little town in England, ran the town bakery. Led
a normal life till he was pretty well along, and then he
"My father committed suicide."
"I know. But that was money."
"Yes, but sometimes I've wondered whether there
wasn't something else in addition. I don't really know
much about my father, and I wonder how well my mother
really knew him."
"Does it disturb you?"
"Not very much. I don't let it."
"That's good. Don't let it. We all have somebody,
every family. Uncle Bert, for instance. When we used to
come here as children, we were always told not to kiss
Uncle Bert. Then when I was ten or twelve we were told
it was all right to kiss him. It doesn't take much guessing
to figure out Uncle Bert's trouble."
"You mean syphilis?"
"Well, something like that. We were never told what
it was. We were just told to shake hands with him, and
we always stayed here in the cottage. He wasn't here all
the time in those days. He was away a lot, racing at the
fairs, and he had a house in Indianapolis where he lived
THE BIG LAUGH
most of the time till his wife died. Aunt Ella. We never
saw much of her. She very seldom came to the farm, and
she wasn't very nice. She had no family, and I got the dis-
tinct impression that Uncle Bert had married beneath him.
Children know those things."
"So do adults. I got the distinct impression that your
uncle thinks you've married beneath you."
"Well, that's because he always liked Wayne. Wayne
drove some of his horses and took an interest. If Wayne had
lived this place probably would have been left to me. But
I don't want it. I love to come here to visit, but it's terribly
hot in summer and mean cold in winter, and much too out
of the way. And my daughter wouldn't have any friends
"I just thought of something. You ought to phone
your sister, in Los Angeles. Tell her to start work on getting
your daughter in some school out there."
"You are thoughtful. Thank you. What I'm going to
do is write to her tomorrow, a long letter. I don't want to
talk to her over the phone. She'd interrupt me with advice
and so forth, and I don't want to be interrupted. I'm sure
we can get the child in some good school. Dwight is pretty
"Member of the California Club."
"You remember that. Yes. And all those things. He
can probably do as much as Josephine."
"And I have to get a house."
"Can't we live in your apartment?
He laughed. "I don't mind playing a game that we're
JOHN O HARA
not married, but God only knows what you'd find in some
of my bureau drawers."
"Just as long as it isn't Mrs. Simmons. She has quite a
figure, that woman, but you never thought she was
"I only saw the figure once. It's quite a figure."
"I'm not afraid of her, really I'm not. If you ever get
tired of me, I don't think you'll go rushing back to her."
"You're supposed to say you'll never get tired of me.
This is our wedding night. Shall I stop talking?"
"And you just put your arms around me and we'll go
to sleep for a few minutes?"
"Do you think we'll sleep?"
"No. But we might. And if we don't? Are you tired?"
She lay with her head on his shoulder and her hand
on his chest, then slowly she began to make circles on his
chest and downward to his belly. "Do you mind if we put
out the light?" she said.
"Ill do it," he said.
In the darkness he lost her for a moment, then found
her, and she was where she wanted to be, where he hoped
she would be.
Edmund Greenhill was standing to one side of his
desk, a concession. He was not standing behind his desk,
he did not sit at his desk and then rise as Hubert Ward
entered the office. He did not come forth and greet Hu-
THE BIG LAUGH
bert Ward. But he was standing to one side of his desk.
That far he would go. He put out his hand, and cocked
his head to one side in a chiding attitude.
"Officially I'm sore as hell at you, Hubie. Sore as
hell. But speaking personally I'm very happy for you. I
hear you got a real lovely person. How you ever did it I
don't know, you reprobate. Take a seat."
Edmund Greenhill decided to sit on the davenport. "I
understand you found a place to live and all?"
"Yes, way the hell out in the Brentwood section."
"Well, we're thinking of moving out that way. Maybe
building. It's the coming section. I don't have anything
against Beverly, but we got industry people on both sides
of us. Laverne Rodney and her husband on the one side
and some writer renting on the other side. If we got our
price we'd like to build on Bristol. You anywhere near Bris-
"You don't care for a cigar, as I recall."
"You're sort of subdued, Hubie. Is that what married
life did to you?"
"No, I'm just waiting for you to begin."
"Well, all right. We'll lay both our cards on the table.
I have the right picture for you to follow Destroyers with,
Hubie, but not what you're asking in the way of money.
I give you my word, the studio won't pay it. I know you
don't want to talk money with me, but I have to talk it
with you. You have an agent that lost all sense of propor-
JOHN O HARA
tion, a Mr. Jack Golsen I believe he calls himself, although
that isn't the name I knew him under when he was a
lowly costume checker in Wardrobe on this very lot. Yes,
that's what he started out as. From there to mimeograph-
ing scripts in the script department and then all of a sud-
den he blossomed forth as an agent. I give you the back-
ground of Mr. Jack Golsen to show you how much he don't
know about pictures. This gentleman now presumes to
know all about production figures, but if he ever saw a pro-
duction chart I doubt it very much. He bases all his infor-
mation on what he can read in Harrisons Reports and Va-
riety. Maybe you don't know what he's asking for you,
"Yes I do. Straight five thousand a week for three
"Did you ever hear of such a thing?"
"Why, sure I did. Do you want me to name some peo-
ple that are getting more?"
"You don't have to. I know their names. I have some
of them working for me. I know the salary of every son of
a bitch acting in pictures today, or I can find it out by
simply picking up that phone on my desk. You want me to
prove it to you?"
"Yes. How much is Doris Arlington getting?"
"Doris? Doris isn't under contract to a studio. She'll
work for twelve thousand dollars a week with a minimum
four weeks' guarantee. Am I correct?"
"I don't know. I was just curious."
"Oh, I thought maybe you were testing me. Well, you
could verify that."
THE BIG LAUGH
"I don't want to verify it, Eddie, or talk any more
about money. And I don't care whether Jack Golsen's real
name was Hymie Fink or if he was a waiter in the com-
missary. I'm pretty sure that he'll get the most money any
studio will pay, and I can't expect more than that."
"Oh. Then you lay your cards on the table, Hubie."
"What's the picture you have for me?"
"I have actually two pictures to follow Destroyers
"Is one of them an aviation picture? If so, nuts."
"One of them was an aviation picture, I'll grant you
that, but if you don't want to follow one aviation picture
with another aviation picture we can forget it. I'd rather
see you in the other one anyway."
"And what is it?"
"It's a picture that we can book it into say the Rivoli
and run it for a year on a reserved-seat policy, with a two-
dollar top. We won't show it any place else in the world
till we get at least a year's run out of it in New York and
maybe London, and then we'll road-show it in the key
cities for another six months minimum before it goes into
the grind houses."
"But you didn't say what it is."
"No, and I won't say till you convince your Mr. Jack
Golsen that he's pricing you right out of pictures."
"Come now, Eddie. That sounds like a threat."
"It isn't intended as such but maybe you ought to
think about it from that angle. Even if I was given to un-
derstand your wife has independent means."
Hubert Ward rose. "So long, Eddie."
JOHN O HARA
"Now wait a second, Hubie. Don't take it that — "
Hubert Ward closed the door behind him, and in the
following weeks the industry buzzed with versions of how
Eddie Greenhill had managed to lose the most valuable
young male star in the business. It was especially humiliat-
ing because the industry was so sure that Eddie Greenhill
had the inside track that no other studio had made serious
efforts to talk business with Hubert Ward. Then when it
was announced that Ward had signed with U. S. Films for
three years at an undisclosed salary, New York told Eddie
he might as well start looking for another job. He could
settle his contract immediately for $100,000, or he could
expect to be assigned to the company's financially success-
ful but low-budget, unprestigious horse operas for the two
years that remained of his contract. He settled. It is
enough to say that Eddie Greenhill never bought or built
in the Brentwood section and that from time to time in the
late Thirties his name would appear in screen credits as
author of original stories.
The first meeting of Nina Ward and Jack Golsen es-
tablished the terms of the relationship that were to be-
come permanent. It took place during the period of the
negotiations between Golsen and U. S. Films. The time
of day late on a Sunday morning. "I promise you I won't
make it a habit," said Hubert Ward. "I'm all for keeping
them away from here. But Golsen thinks Ziffrin is ready
to sign. Monday, probably. And we want to get our stories
"Why do you have to get your stories straight?"
THE BIG LAUGH
"Because I could accidentally say something that Gol-
sen wasn't ready to have me say. He'll be here tomorrow
"What sort of creature is he? He sounds awful on the
"He's pretty awful, but you won't have to more than
say hello to him."
"Shall I offer him breakfast?"
"No, but he may need a cup of coffee. Saturday night
he always goes on the town."
"He's not married?"
Hubert and Nina Ward entered the library together,
and Jack Golsen turned to face them. With both hands he
held out a long box from a florist. "To Mrs. Ward for dis-
turbing your Sunday morning," he said.
"This is Jack Golsen," said Hubert Ward.
"I apologize for this intrusion," said Golsen. "But it
honestly couldn't be helped, Mrs. Ward. Hello, Hubie. You
I didn't bring anything except maybe some good news.
"Shall I open it here? Now?" said Nina Ward.
"If that's your pleasure," said Golsen.
"Yellow roses. My favorites! Did Hubert tell you? He
couldn't have, because he didn't know."
"No, I was only going by a description of you and a
couple photographs that didn't do you justice."
"They're perfectly lovely. Thank you so much. I'll get
something to put them in. Oh — would you like a cup of
JOHN O HARA
"If it's no trouble, I could sure use a strong cup of
black coffee with one lump of sugar in it."
"Some scrambled eggs? Or fried? It wont take a
"Please, Mrs. Ward. The very thought of food — in
other words, no thanks. Just the coffee, please."
"It's strong and it's hot," said Nina Ward, and went
to get it.
"I would say you're a very fortunate man, Hubie. She
didn't have to open her mouth and I knew she was a class
dame. And don't object to dame. In England they use
dame as a title, the same as sir. Jesus Christ, I feel awful.
I took this broad home to the apartment with me and she's
still there. Some broad I seen her sitting on a bench wait-
ing for a bus down on Wilshire. I was on my way to a party
at some friends of mine on the other side of Wilshire, down
past Western. Just some friends of mine. But I got stopped
by a light and I had a quick gander at her and just for the
hell of it I opened the door of the car and I said to her,
'Here I am,' and like she was expecting me she got in. She
asked me where I was going and I said I was on my way
to a party. About twenty-seven, twenty-eight years of age.
Red hair, and thrown together like a brick shithouse I
could see that. And she said, well would there be plenty
of girls at the party because if not she didn't have any-
thing better to do. 'What's your name?' I said. 'Mary Pick-
ford,' she said, 'what the hell difference does it make?' So
I knew right away this was my broad for the night. She
said, 'You're a Jew, aren't you?' and I said, 'Yeah, and you
get the hell outa the car,' and she said, 'Wait a minute. I
THE BIG LAUGH
like Jews,' and I said how many did she like, and she said
well only one at a time. So that kind of made me laugh
and I said why didn't we blow the party and spend a little
money, Saturday night, everybody was spending money
that had any. She's still there at the apartment. Or I guess
she is. I don't know her name or where she lives or any-
thing. But I'll tell you this much, I need that coffee." On
seeing Nina with the tray he brought his story to a quick
conclusion. "Ah, the mocha-java," he said. "Let me get
some of this down and bring back my confidence."
"Take your time, it's good and hot," said Nina Ward.
"Yes, don't burn your tongue," said Hubert Ward.
"Looking around, I think this house used to belong
to Jasper W. Tuttle, one actor that saved his money and
invested it right. Actors will save their money, but invest-
ing it is another matter entirely. Your husband, he don't
have anything but cash, regardless of what I tell him."
"I can understand cash, I can't understand the things
you want me to invest in."
"Real estate you ought to be able to understand. You
pay big rent for this house. That's real estate. Tuttle didn't
build this house, you know. Who built it was old Geoffrey
Masters. Sir Geoffrey we used to call him, long before the
King gave him the right to be called Sir. He used to tell
people it was a copy of his old home in Cornwall or some
place, but I got him to level with me one time and the old
phony admitted he never had any house in Cornwall.
Then, But he sold the place to Jasper W. Tuttle and then
he bought a house in England. I don't know if it was Corn-
JOHN O HARA
wall. Tuttle sold it to the present owner. You know who
the present owner is, don't you?"
"A lawyer named Fabrikant."
"Nah. Fabrikant's only a front. This house and the
two houses on that side of you and from here to the corner
on the other side, all owned by Doris Arlington."
'Til be a son of a bitch."
"You let him talk like that in front of you, Mrs.
Golsen lit a cigarette. He kept waving the match
long after it was out. "You mind if I tell you something,
"Don't you do the changing. Let him. This man is on
the eve of a big career after futzing around for four years.
Looking at it from strictly the agent's point of view,
strictly mercenary, you're as good a thing as could have
happened to him at exactly this time. Single, he could have
gone haywire. Married to some broad, he could have gone
haywire. But married to you, just from what little I know
about you — but I know people — Hubert Ward is really go-
ing places. Provided. Provided he plays it right. Who he
ought to pattern himself after is Ronnie Colman, for in-
stance. Hubie is twenty-five years of age, four years in pic-
tures, not an unknown, but from now on he's going to get
big parts, big billing, big money. In other words he just
graduated from high school, as far as pictures goes. We
made nice money, but from here in — wow! And marrying
you is the smartest thing he ever did — "
THE BIG LAUGH
"I'll take a little credit for that," said Hubert Ward.
"Quiet, Hubie. Today using the brain is tough
enough. To continue, Mrs. Ward. Were gonna surround
this fellow with the aura of respectability. Why? Because
in the long run it pays off. It's paying off for Ronnie, and I
don't have to tell you about Garbo. We can't make this fel-
low into a man of mystery. It's too late for that, even at
twenty-five. But the way I look at it, the country's ready
for a leading man that's happily married, that don't chase
around, that goes home from the studio and his wife is a
non-pro. It's not only the country's ready. The industry's
ready. I want this fellow to have it in his contract that he
has to approve of publicity stills, and who he'll see for in-
terviews and all that. Maybe we couldn't get that just now
with one of the majors, but we can get it with U. S. Films
and Ziffrin. You don't have any objection if we make him
the symbol of respectability, your husband?"
Nina Ward looked at her husband and then at Gol-
sen. "Do you always talk this way, Mr. Golsen?"
"Mrs. Ward, that don't offend me. That's the way I
want you to be. I just as soon if you're a total ignoramus
about people like me, and picture business. Tomorrow I
have the crucial meeting with Ziffrin and them. On money
we're not very far apart. On billing. Such details as those
there. What I plan to do, I make a loud noise fighting about
the money, and I wear them down and they wear me
down till I give a little, and then I sneak in these other
things about publicity stills and interviews. They won't
fight me. No studio breaks their necks to get publicity for
a star. Contrary to the general opinion, they hate to spend
JO HN O H AR A
money on a star, and especially an independent like U. S.
Films. They'll loosen up for a picture, because they have
to, but it goes against the grain to spend good money on
an actor or actress. So I look like I'm doing them a favor
without knowing it, and that way I get it down in black
and white that our boy here don't have to do stunts, have
your house overrun with these photographers and inter-
viewers. We practically dictate who he sees and who he
don't see. And that means you're spared the ballyhoo
stuff. So is your little daughter, and maybe you and Hubie
will start increasing the population, who knows?"
Thus, on a Sunday morning, in a Tudor house in the
Brentwood Heights section of Los Angeles, a star was fabri-
cated by a man who at the moment was suffering from his
excesses of the night before. The factors were neatly con-
tradictory: the Lord's Day; the synthetic surroundings
that had been originally placed there by a Cheapside boy
who had once longed for the English countryside; the girl
from the prairies who was about to be made famous by
keeping her in obscurity; the subject himself, who had
lived a quarter of a century without a thought of princi-
ple, and who was about to be converted by the movies into
something his remote ancestors had been through convic-
tion. Hubert Ward accompanied Jack Golsen to the door
and came back to the livingroom, where Nina was looking
at the Sunday paper. He slowly paced up and down in
front of her.
"What is it?" she said.
"I was just thinking," he said. "Maybe I ought to write
to my mother."
THE BIG LAUGH
The photographs of Hubert Ward, in opera hat and
tails, and Nina, in her mink, at the movie premieres always
had them together; walking, standing, sitting in the Pack-
ard town car that Ziffrin-U. S. Films gave Hubert Ward
as a Christmas bonus. The captions always referred to
Nina as the lovely socialite wife of the popular star. Hu-
bert Ward had no contractual control over the newspaper
photographers, but he needed none, since they rarely had
a chance to take his picture where he did not want it taken.
Nearly all his pictures in the files were Mr. and Mrs. Hu-
bert Ward, chatting between chukkers at Midwick Coun-
try Club (Eric Pedley, Mr. Ward, Mrs. Ward, Elmer
Boeseke); Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Ward sharing a box with
Mr. and Mrs. Dwight Barley at the Pacific South West
tennis tournament (front row, Mrs. Ward and her sister,
Mrs. Barley; seated behind them, Dwight Barley and Mr.
Ward); a gay group enjoying the Santa Barbara Fiesta
( Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Joyce, Movie Star Hubert Ward and
his socialite wife; Billy Fiske, noted bobsledder; Hugh
Blue, noted yachtsman; Louis Rowan, young Pasadena
polo star; Wright Ludington, noted art collector; Mrs.
Louise Macy, of New York, former Pasadenan; Icky Outh-
waite, popular society entertainer; Mr. and Mrs. Alfred
Wright, of Pasadena ) ; and Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Ward at-
tending the Philharmonic concert at the Shrine Auditorium
(the movie idol and his socialite wife discussing the pro-
gram with Mrs. Dwight Barley, Mrs. Ward's sister).
There were photographic files devoted to Ward, Mrs.
Hubert (Nina). The pictures were few in number and
nearly all showed her with other women at tennis, at pool-
JOHN O HARA
side, leaving the fashion shows at Bullock's-Wilshire and
I. Magnin's, and at society weddings (Mr. Ward was on
location in the High Sierras). There was one batch of
glossy prints that showed her leaving the Vendome restau-
rant and seated in the garden at her Brentwood Heights
residence with Mrs. Sanford Ward, New Jersey socialite
mother of the noted movie star . . .
She did not answer Hubert Ward's first letter. "But
don't give up," said Nina. "I'll write to her, or maybe it'd
be a good idea if I wrote to your sister first."
"I don't know where she lives, but I suppose I could
find out easily enough."
"God no. There I draw the line, at that son of a bitch.
If he'd had his way I'd be at the bottom of the Amazon."
"The Amazons had big bottoms," said Nina.
"You know, Nina, I'm going to have to report you to
"No, he wouldn't object to my risque jokes. We're mar-
ried, that's what he cares about."
"He didn't want you to change."
"Maybe I didn't change, very much. Maybe I didn't
change at all. I just never knew any boy that I could say
naughty things to, and they're not so naughty, really.
Amazons' bottoms. They had big bottoms and big thick
thighs. Crush a man to death, I should think. Maybe that's
what they did."
"As you were saying, speaking of my mother, who's
not an Amazon but maybe does want to crush me to
THE BIG LAUGH
"As I was saying, 111 write to her," said Nina.
Nina's letter got a response. Kitty Ward had been will-
ing enough to accept her share of her son's fame, but be-
fore doing so she had to be able to show her brother that
Richard had come to her, so to speak. Or so she believed.
Franklin Hubert was bored with Kitty and her Sunday
dinners and pride in her grandchildren and financial
problems and lonely drinking and self-imposed exclusion
from participation in the life of her son. New acquaint-
ances would say to her, "I hadn't realized you were the
mother of Hubert Ward," and as Richard became better
known it became more difficult to refrain from accepting
the homage due the mother of a film star. It became so dif-
ficult, in fact, that she did not take the trouble to maintain
her early aloofness toward Richard the Broadway actor.
"Oh, yes, he's my son," she would say, and her newest
acquaintance would marvel at the quiet modesty of the
"I can't say no to this letter," she said to her brother.
"She sounds like a really nice girl."
"Then dont say no," said Franklin Hubert. "Blood is
thicker than water. And it's time he did something about
"You've been so wonderful, Frank."
"I haven't been wonderful. You're my sister."
"Yes, but not every brother would do as much as
you've done." She refused to let him alter the self-portrait
of a woman with a devoted brother and a penitent, fa-
mous son. "They want me to stay a month."
JOHN O H AR A
"Well, there's nothing keeping you here. Stay a
month. Maybe you could even rent this house, if you like
it out there."
"Oh, I could never leave all my friends now. But a few
weeks in California. I've never been to California. I wonder
if Nina's having a baby."
"I haven't the faintest idea. You'll be able to find that
out when you get there."
"It might be just what he needs."
In her letter Nina had enclosed a cheque for two
thousand dollars, "to cover traveling expenses and other
tilings that might come up." Hubert Ward in his letter had
only offered to send money. The clerk at the bank was
very polite when Kitty Ward deposited the cheque; he
could not completely hide his surprise at seeing the noted
signature, but he made no special comment, and Kitty did
not remember until later that the bank clerk might have
some reason to show surprise. But by that time she had
spent some of the money on a new outfit and the rail tick-
Her son and his wife met her at the Pasadena station,
Kitty's second experience of posing for newspaper photog-
raphers, but this one hardly to be compared to those
dreadful moments at Sandy Ward's funeral. Actually the
photographers' presence at the railroad station created a
pleasant confusion that helped to get the three Wards over
the first awkward minutes of greeting. "No more, please,"
said Hubert Ward. "Thanks, boys, but my mother's had a
long trip. You understand."
An unpleasant little man from one of the Los Angeles
THE BIG LAUGH
papers said, "Hubie, isn't this a sort of a reconciliation,
you and your mother?"
Hubert Ward smiled and pretended not to under-
stand the question. He leaned forward to the chauffeur.
"Straight home, Harold/' he said.
Nina did most of the talking on the ride down to
Brentwood Heights, and Kitty Ward's contributions were
largely comments on the flora of Southern California. At
the house Hubert Ward said, "I have to leave you two, I'm
shooting, but I'll see you this evening."
"Do you know, I thought he must be wearing
make-up," said Kitty Ward, when he had left. "You know,
I'm getting terribly near-sighted. It's age, I suppose. When
am I going to see your little girl?"
"She gets home from school around four-thirty," said
"I brought a little present for her. Does she like dolls?
I couldn't think of anything else."
"I suppose she gets a lot of them, from movie fans."
"Well — not so many. She already had quite a few,
though, before I knew Hubert."
"I must get used to you calling him Hubert, too."
"That's what the whole world calls him now. Or Hu-
bie, but I don't like the nickname Hubie."
"No. It's a family name, you know. It was my maiden
name. We go back, oh, long before the Revolutionary War,
the Huberts. Of course you do, too, the Parsonses. That's
an old New England name, isn't it?"
JOHN O HARA
"And your first husband was Mr. Stephens. That's a
good old name, too. A Reverend Parsons christened one
of my grandchildren. I always thought that was a good co-
incidence, Parson Parsons. A friend of ours was named
Sargent and he was a corporal in the Essex Troop. We
were always hoping he'd be promoted to sergeant, but
when the war came he was made a lieutenant. Your house
is very English for California, isn't it? I expected some-
thing quite different — not that I don't like it."
"It isn't really our house. We're renting it," said Nina.
"I didn't ask anyone for lunch, I thought you'd be tired.
Tonight we're having my sister and her husband. They live
in Beverly Hills. And Doris Arlington — "
"Doris Arlington? Wonderful. One of my favorites."
"She's coming, and a friend of hers, a Mr. Doyle Cor-
"From the movies?"
"No, he's an oil man, I think. And Ruth St. Alban — "
"Ruth St. Alban? Coming here?''
"Well — you know — you get probably the wrong idea
of a person from the parts they play."
"I should hope so. I'm glad Hubert isn't like some of
the characters he plays."
"I never thought of that, but of course it's true. Hu-
bert, as you call him, was a wild boy, and as his mother I'd
be the first to admit it. But in just those few minutes I can
see that he's changed a lot, and I think I know who I can
thank for that. Are you happy, Nina?"
"Well of course."
THE BIG LAUGH
"Then that's all I want to know. If you're happy, he's
happy, and he wasn't very happy as a boy. A good deal
of the trouble he got into was because he didn't seem to
— I don't know, but he wasn't happy. But then you take
my brother and I, Richard's uncle. We were happy as chil-
dren, but I later on had to go through a lot, and my broth-
er's not as happy as he should be in spite of all his suc-
cess. You have to learn to take the good with the bad in
"How very true. Would you like a cocktail, Mrs.
"Oh — are you having one?"
"No, but don't let that stop you."
"I don't think I will, thank you. We'll be having them
before dinner and I can wait till then."
"This being the middle of the week, it's going to be
an early party. I imagine Doris and Ruth will be going
home around ten."
"Oh, yes. And Hubert has to be up at half-past five."
"Half -past five in the morning?"
Kitty Ward burst into hearty laughter. "Oh, that
strikes me funny. Half-past five in the morning? Well, if
the movies didn't do anything else they certainly changed
one of his habits. We used to have to throw cold water on
him to get him out of bed at nine. Wait till my brother
Kitty Ward and Nina were left alone together after
the dinner guests departed and Hubert Ward had retired.
JOHN O HARA
"I'd just love to sit up and talk, but I imagine you'd like to
"Ill stay up a little while. I always have a cup of
coffee with Hubert at breakfast, but I'm not tired. How
did you like your first movie stars?"
"Doris is very witty, Doris Arlington. But she's so
hard. I don't mean anything about her morals, but the
things she says. And Ruth, Ruth St. Alban, she is like the
parts she plays. The one I liked best tonight was your sis-
ter, Josephine. I'm older, of course, but she was really a
kindred spirit tonight. I think she felt the same way as I
did about the movie actresses, and underneath 111 bet you
do too, Nina."
"No, I'm afraid I've gotten to like Doris. And Ruth is
really rather pathetic."
"Pathetic? Why do you say that?"
"Well, I probably know so much more about her."
"Nothing very scandalous. But pathetic. And Doris
seems hard because for a woman this is a very difficult
"Ill bet it wasn't very difficult for her. I was disap-
pointed in Doris Arlington, I always thought I'd like her.
I never did think much of Ruth St. Alban, and 111 bet your
sister Josephine doesn't think very much of her right this
minute. I hope D wight isn't very susceptible, because
Ruth St. Alban did everything but sit in his lap."
"Well, maybe he'd be better off if somebody did sit
in his lap."
THE BIG LAUGH
"Oh, you don't mean that, Nina. He and Josephine
make an ideal couple."
"Oh, they are. But D wight has no sense of humor,
and if somebody like Ruth sat in his lap it might do him
some good. Well, I'm afraid the time has come for me to —
can I get you anything? I'm going to let you sleep in the
morning. You ring whenever you want breakfast. I'll be
out most of the morning, but I'll be back in time to take you
to lunch. I thought I'd take you to the Vendome. That's a
very dressy restaurant. Then after lunch we can drive
around if you like."
"Fine. I have some friends in Pasadena I'd like to see
while I'm here. Josephine knows them. But otherwise I'll
do anything you say."
"We'll telephone them tomorrow. Goodnight, Mrs.
Hubert Ward was sitting up in bed, smoking a ciga-
rette. "We can look forward to a month of that," he said.
"Oh, I'll keep her occupied. I'll take her sightseeing,
some of the sights I haven't seen. And she likes Josephine."
"She's a total stranger to me."
"Well, you won't have to see much of her."
"But you will. I have a guilty conscience about that."
"Don't have. She's not going to be any trouble. Shall
I make you forget all about her?"
"I wish you would."
"Have you got any love scenes to play tomorrow?"
"I wouldn't want to take away from your ardor."
JOHN O HARA
"Oh, yes you would."
"No, I don't think that'd be fair. That's the way you
earn your living, and if I make love to you the night before
you wont be convincing. I don't mind if it's the other way,
if making love for a picture makes you want to make love
with me. But I don't think I ought to take away that look
in your eye."
"It's there, is it?"
"Yes it is."
"Well, tomorrow I get wounded at the Battle of Bull
Run. I think it's Bull Run. Maybe it's Gettysburg."
"Then it's all right if you look tired. I'll be right with
you. Can't we tone down the lighting effects?"
"You're getting pretty damn professional about this."
"Well, I'd hate it if you called me an amateur."
"That you are not."
"Because I love my work. And I love you, too, un-
happy little boy. 111 bet you were, as a matter of fact."
"The hell I was. Go on, get your clothes off, Nina."
"All right, lieutenant."
"I'm a captain. And a Southern gentleman."
"A Southern gentleman would never say, 'Get your
clothes off, Nina.' "
"How do you know?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I don't, so maybe you're
right. Are you going to stab me, captain?"
"Honey, you bet I am."
"You know with what, and where."
"I'll be right with you, captain sir."
THE BIG LAUGH
Nina filled Kitty's days with motor trips, shopping,
and the social activities of women whose husbands were
at work, chiefly women who were friends of Josephine Bar-
ley. They supplied Kitty Ward with a society background
— "Very good family back East" — but she was so like them
in her fondness for idle chatter and her pursuit of unde-
manding, uncompromising pleasures that they relaxed
their vigilance against the snobbishness they always ex-
pected from an Easterner. For her part Kitty declared she
had never met so many nice women in any one place, and
it became a problem for Nina to remind Kitty that she was
invited for a month. ("Goodness, your visit is half over
and I haven't taken you to Santa Barbara. We'll do that
In the final week Kitty said to her daughter-in-law:
"Nina, I want you to be perfectly honest with me. Is Hu-
bert avoiding me? I've hardly talked to him alone since
I've been here/'
"Yes he is, in a way, and I think you can understand
why," said Nina, who had been anticipating the question.
"He wants this to be a pleasant visit, and not a time for
going back over all those years."
"You're a very wise girl, Nina. But of course being a
mother yourself, you knew I could sense that."
"Oh, of course you did. And hasn't it worked out bet-
ter this way? I'm sure you must have been dreading the
thought of rehashing all those years."
"I was, and it wouldn't surprise me if Hubert had got
the idea from you."
"No, it was his idea, but I went along with it. Of
JOHN O H AR A
course he has changed, too. You Ve seen that. He's much
more serious than he was. He takes everything more seri-
ously. His work, for instance. He has a big responsibility,
a lot of money is at stake when he does a picture. For in-
stance, if he should fail to show up some day — the sniffles,
or anything like that — really thousands of dollars would
be lost, added to the cost of the picture. Thousands of dol-
lars. That's why he's so careful what he eats, and goes to
bed early. And they appreciate that at the studio."
"I hope they do."
"Oh, they do."
"When he finishes the picture what will you do?"
"We'll go somewhere together, away from everybody.
We might charter someone's boat, or rent a log cabin in
the mountains. Just be by ourselves for a month or so.
Away from people and the telephone."
"And take your little girl with you?"
"Oh, no. I wouldn't take her out of school, and she
loves being with Josephine."
"Maybe I shouldn't ask this, but are you and Hubert
planning to have a family?"
"We certainly are. We want to have at least two chil-
"Maybe when you come back from your stay in the
mountains. I want you to promise me you'll let me know
as soon as you're sure."
"I'm sure Hubert wouldn't be able to keep it to him-
self, even if I wanted to. He's very anxious to have children,
almost as anxious as I am, and that's saying a lot."
"You're a wonderful mother, Nina. I think you ought
THE BIG LAUGH
to have more children, you're so good with your own lit-
tle girl, and she's a perfect angel of a child. She must have
been a very great comfort to you."
"Yes, but don't forget Hubert helped to heal that
They wanted to hear what they were saying to each
other, so much so that either woman could have provided
the other's next sentence. But no harm was done, except
the slight damage to truth and candor; and since Kitty's
visit was itself a small insult to truth — they had not in-
vited her because they really wanted her — a few extra
minor pretenses were in order. Kitty was packed off two
days after her month was up. She had seen something of
Southern California and the states along the Santa Fe
right-of-way; she had met some top movie stars; made
friends with women who would remember her if she re-
turned to Los Angeles but would not think about her if
she did not; she had become acquainted with a top movie
star who was her own flesh and blood; she was much bet-
ter off financially. On her last night Richard informed her
that thenceforth she could count on an allowance of $10,-
000 a year, which would be paid to her by his agent, Jack
Golsen, in monthly installments. It had been a profitable
trip. But on the train to Chicago she became unaccounta-
bly depressed. Nina was a perfect wife, far better than
Richard had a right to hope for, and Kitty adored her. She
even said as much to a woman with whom she had two
meals in the dining-car. But Richard should not have mar-
ried a perfect wife; he should have married a tart and
stayed the way he really was, the way he always had been.
JOHN O H AR A
The movie star, aware of his responsibilities, mindful of the
cost when the sniffles kept him from work, giving his
mother ten thousand a year, rejecting the raffish element
of Hollywood in favor of a sort of country club mixture —
this was not Richard Ward. Richard Ward had vanished.
Hubert Ward was a huge face on a billboard, and nothing
like that had ever come out of her, and it was not what she
had squeezed out of Sandy into herself.
In the earliest days the motion picture was manufac-
tured in rooms called studios, not because the pioneers
had delusions of art, but because the essential piece of
equipment was the camera, and for nearly a century pho-
tographers had been calling their places of business stu-
dios. When the motion picture business moved to Califor-
nia and began to acquire acreage, the people in the
business borrowed an old circus term and spoke of the stu-
dio as The Lot. As the industry prospered a new name was
needed, but no one invented a good one; The Lot — the
Warner Lot, the Paramount Lot — remained in accepta-
ble usage in the trade, and The Studio became the desig-
nation that was adopted by the trade and the general
public. No one wanted to refer to the studios as factories,
but that is what they were. In the clothing business, from
which so many of the non-performing personnel had come,
there was some creative talent and a great deal of tempera-
ment — as in the manufacture of motion pictures — but no
one objected to the word factory. In Hollywood, however,
factory was a term of derision, and a man, usually a writer,
who referred to a studio as a factory was likely to be the
THE BIG LAUGH
kind of person who used factory and salt-mines and studio
Since he did not earn his living in a place called a
factory but in a business that called itself a studio, Hu-
bert Ward was permitted and even encouraged to call
himself an artist. One studio, indeed, called itself United
Artists, as another had called itself Famous Players.
(There was no such nonsense in the name Warner Broth-
ers. No one in the world ever paid a nickel to see a Warner
brother, but there was no doubt about who was paying the
artists they employed.) Joe Ziffrin was more than willing
to have Hubert Ward consider himself an artist — remote,
unavailable, self-confident — if Hubert Ward the artist
would bear in mind that his art, to function at all, had to
function in an atmosphere of dollars-and-cents profit.
"There's more people see you in one picture than ever saw
all of Shakespeare's actors in his whole lifetime," Joe Zif-
frin told Hubert Ward.
"I have no idea how many people that would be/'
said Hubert Ward.
"Well, neither do I, but from the pictures of those
theaters I bet they didn't seat over a hundred, if that. In
The Thin Grey Line you'll be seen by millions, millions.
That title is out, by the way. Somebody just remembered
it sounds like a plug for a bus line. Also, I don't like the
word thin in there, and never did. A good fifty gees down
the drain we spent publicizing the old title, but a bad title
can kill a good picture, no matter what they say. And we
* In later years the Irving Thalberg Building at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
was known as The Iron Lung.
JOHN O H AR A
have a good picture, Hubie. You know what I consider a
"Marion Davies wants you to co-star."
"Oh, we'll put her off, and the old man, but she only
wants the top guys, and she never asked for you before.
That's a good sign."
"Well, put them off as long as you can, I don't care
how you do it."
"Ill do it by keeping you busy. I understand you and
your missus are going away somewhere for a well-earned
vacation, but take along a couple of outlines I got for your
next picture. Just give them a cursory glance when you
have a minute."
"Have I got any choice?"
"Legally, no, but you're pretty good at picking what's
suitable. And you know why that is, Hubie?"
"Because you're developing a sense of box office. I'll
never give anybody a term contract that includes the right
to choose stories, but if I did give it to anybody, that per-
son would be you."
"And something else you got, absolutely remarkable
in a fellow your age. You know when to stay out of the
limelight. Some actors and particularly actresses want
their name in every paper every day. But I can tell you
from when I was a press agent, publicity that isn't tied in
with a picture is only wearing out your welcome. Don't
THE BIG LAUGH
every time you eat in a restaurant think your name ought
to be in Parsons's column. People get sick of seeing your
"Did I ever mention to you that my wife's maiden
name was Parsons?"
"But she isn't any relation?"
"No relation, and we've never even told Lollie."
"It may come in handy sometime, but the way you're
going you'll never need her. You would need her if you
were looking for jobs, but you're all set, and if she does you
a favor she expects one in return. I need her, but you
"I hope I never do.'
"One of these days maybe you and the missus will
condescend to come and have dinner at my house. Sylvia's
most anxious to get acquainted with Nina, but I won't press
it. That I can't legally make you do, and between you and
I, the one that's goosing Sylvia into it is Mildred Simmons.
You know, Hubie, I never heard a thing about you and
Mildred all those years, but I think you were sticking it in
there and fooling everybody."
"You're wrong, Joe."
"No. I may be wrong thinking you were laying her all
the time, but I know you had a piece of it, because Mildred
told Sylvia you did. And any time you want any more, it's
"I don't want any."
"Well, that's entirely up to you, but Mildred isn't giv-
ing up. You know who she's got now, don't you?"
"Don't know, and don't care."
JOHN O H AR A
"Well, it's the guy that gave you your start. Marty
Ruskin. He's here talking a deal with Metro, producing."
"I saw that, yes."
"He's asking too much money, but if he comes down
to earth I wouldn't be surprised to see him sign. He don't
know a God damn thing about pictures, but Thalberg's get-
ting ready to make him an offer. Marty was at the house the
other night with Mildred, and don't think he doesn't bring
up your name every chance he gets. There's a lot of people,
Hubie, they're ready to cash in on your success."
"Good luck to the little fairy."
"Yeah? That I never knew. He's in the hay with Mil-
"That I can believe. He tried to tell me you had a bit
of swish in you, and I wondered why the hell he'd say that,
on your record. But now I begin to see daylight."
"I wouldn't call that trying to cash in on my success."
"Oh, I don't think he goes around saying it to every-
body, but he can cash in and still put the knock on you.
As far as that goes, Mildred blasts you, too, but Sylvia says
you're a kind of a mania with Mildred. She hardly talks
about anyone else. If it's any satisfaction, Marty Ruskin
didn't take your place."
"It's no satisfaction."
"Marty said one funny thing, at my house. You know,
he's one of those New York jerks that come out here and
think they make an impression by knocking Hollywood."
"That's been tried before."
THE BIG LAUGH
"By experts. But he got on the subject of — now I can't
think of the word. What was Chesterton famous for?"
"I don't know."
"Paradox! Marty said the most amusing paradox is
you. Now wait a minute till I get it right. He said the big
laugh is Hollywood, everything about it. And everywhere
you went there was a big laugh, like Hubert Ward
suddenly becoming respectable. Hollywood is a place
where Hubert Ward can pass for respectable. But the big
laugh, he said, was going to be when they found out that
you were more respectable as a bum than as — you don't
mind if I say this? — than as a hypocrite."
"I don't mind anything Marty says, as long as he
doesn't say it to me."
"He has it in for you, but now I know why. And he
and Mildred between them really go to work on you. Well,
it wasn't so long ago that they were all wondering what
you got out of it, sitting and chatting with her. And now
she's practically telling them. I told Sylvia to be careful of
that dame. I never liked Charley much, but I'll bet she
gave him a bad time. These last couple of years something
was eating him, and it was her."
"Charley was a nice guy."
"Maybe he was and maybe he wasn't, but he was too
good to her. No dame is ever going to do that to me. I'll
screw anything. I knocked off a piece of tail here yester-
day, right in this room. A girl works on the second floor
and I never took particular notice to her before, but she
happened to get in the elevator with me. 'All the way, Mr.
Ziffrin?' she said and put her finger on the button, but she
JOHN O HARA
meant it as a double meaning and I said yeah. I said I'd
wait for her in my office and let her in through the hall
door, so my secretary wouldn't see her. She was nothing
special, not to look at, but she wanted to get laid and I'm
the head of the studio. So we had a little screw. Listen, I
don't have any illusions about myself, or about Sylvia
either, for that matter. If she's getting it on the side, more
power to her, because I could never be satisfied with one
woman and she knows it. I don't care if they're a big star
in pictures or some stenographer from the second floor, I'll
take all I can get. It'd be different if I believed in love, but
I don't. Who the hell would love an ugly little fellow like
me? But I get plenty of tail. Some people complain about
the way I eat. They say I don't have any manners. And
they don't like how I dress. And I made plenty of enemies
in business. So what? When I was a kid other kids used to
run away from me, till I found out that money was power.
So I used to steal money to take a girl to the picture show,
and boy what went on there. You know what they call a
shylock in New York City? That's a guy that lends you
five bucks for six, a dollar a week interest. I was a shylock
when I was sixteen years of age, loaning money to hack
drivers. They didn't pay, I had a collector an Italian boy
I'd give him five bucks to beat a guy up. He turned into
Young Kid Marco, fought in Madison Square Garden a
couple times. He got knocked off in some kind of a Black
Hand war, but by then I owned my first theater on Avenue
B. I took this studio away from Charley Simmons right
under his nose, and I don't intend to stop here. Would
Charley have showed me any mercy? No. Only he would
THE BIG LAUGH
have done it his way, and my way he called gangster
ethics. So what? I been called worse names than that. If
your grosses are up, don't ever mind what they call you.
Hubie. And you got Jack Golsen to do your dirty work."
"Well, for the next couple of years the only dirty work
he has is to pick up my cheque."
"And maybe by that time you can get rid of him. A
couple years from now Sylvia has a brother that's coming
up in the agency business, and maybe you'll want to go
"Oh, I think I'll stick with Jack."
"No hurry. Just a suggestion for the future."
"Is that what you wanted to talk to me about, Joe?"
"Hell, no. You mean I pick up a little splitting commis-
sions with my brother-in-law? No, I'm past that, Hubie.
Five or six years ago I would have, but I'm too big for that
now. Five or six years ago I was still looking for every dol-
lar so I could buy stock in the company. I would of washed
your car if it meant a dollar, almost. But the chicken-feed
days are over, Hubie. I don't have to chisel any more. You
know why I wanted to have this chat with you? You know
why I wanted to sit here and relax, with probably six or
eight guys sitting outside in my reception room, and my
"No. Tell me."
"Because you and I are going places together, and we
ought to get acquainted. I got you under contract, I got
five other top people under contract. I just signed the
smartest woman in the business for my Eastern story editor
that's going to line up the best properties and only the
JOHN O HARA
best. I got Ken Downey under an exclusive contract for
five years, a personal contract with me, not with the com-
pany. And, if you can keep a secret, I got a wealthy man in
New York, never put a nickel in any kind of show business
before, that when the time comes, the psychological mo-
ment, he's ready with a blank cheque. How do you like
that for a setup?"
"It looks very good/'
"It looks very good? If I told you who the money man is
I can hear you ask yourself how did this little heeb Joe
Ziffrin get anywheres near So-and-so. Well, that's my
secret, how I got to him, but I did."
"But I'm not that big, that—"
"No, you're not. But you're growing all the time, and
right now I got you for pretty small money. Two years
from now you'll only be twenty-seven-eight years of age,
with many long years ahead of you. You play along with
me now, and when the big things begin to happen, I'll
take care of you. Just be satisfied for the present, Hubie.
Play along with me. Make me look good now and by the
time you're thirty years of age you won't be some
washed-up ex-juvenile, you'll be one of the all-time big
earners. Play it the way you been playing it lately. Stay
out of trouble, stay out of the night clubs, and you'll be a
second Ronnie Colman."
"I'd kind of like to be a first Hubert Ward."
"I don't care what you call it, as long as you know
what I mean. Just let me remind you, though. Ronnie Col-
man is right now I guess the wealthiest actor in pictures,
and if anybody wants to call me a second Louis B. Mayer,
THE BIG LAUGH
I got no objections if the money goes with it. How much
are you worth? You're worth around a hundred and sixty
thousand dollars cash."
"I guess so. Ill take your word for it."
"Take my word for it. Right now your missus is worth
more. Don't get sore. With me it's business, Hubie, I didn't
pry into your affairs for curiosity. I gotta know what you're
drawing to, what's your hole card. But 111 tell you
this, Hubie. I got no objection to you being worth a million
dollars on your thirtieth birthday, and two million by the
time you're thirty-five. And a big fat three million when
you're forty. Just as long as I'm making mine while you're
making yours. And I can practically guarantee it. For a
guy that was getting ninety a week on Broadway a short
while ago, three million socked away at forty is pretty
"I suppose you wouldn't tell me who your money
man is in New York?" said Hubert Ward.
"I wouldn't tell that to Sylvia, my own wife. I won't
tell you anything about my business transactions. Charley
Simmons used to try to find out, but if I told him I wouldn't
be sitting in his office today. And neither would you." He
leaned forward over his desk. "Hubie, you and I are
a couple of bastards together, so let's understand each
"Everything we say to each other stays right in this
JOHN O HARA
"And that includes if you ever get in any kind of a jam
that I can get you out of, I'll do it."
"Because you don't want my job and I don't want
yours, but the bigger we get, the more we're gonna need
somebody we can go and talk to. You don't have any
friends and I don't either, but I can talk to you and you can
always talk to me. You know what ruined Charley Sim-
"He couldn't face the fact that he was as much of a
son of a bitch as you or me. The only son of a bitch he
could talk to was his wife, and then he found out she was
cheating on him. He didn't die of any broken neck. He
was as good as dead as soon as Mildred told him about
"There wasn't much to tell."
"To Charley it was plenty. You know why, Hubie?
Because she didn't have to tell him, the bitch. But when
she told him, he knew she was doing it to ruin him. Oh, I
know what people say about me. Vulgar and uncouth and
all that, and slippery. But when it comes to people, I got
a pretty good understanding."
"Are you always right?"
"The only one I was wrong about was myself. I
thought I wanted to be a nice kid. But I didn't want to be a
nice kid. That was listening to my parents. They wanted
me to be a nice kid. I guess they took a look at me and de-
cided 'This one we better be careful or he'll go to the elec-
tric chair, like Gyp the Blood.' He was a distant relative
THE BIG LAUGH
of my mother. You want to know the truth, I was headed in
that direction. A few years older and maybe I'd of been Gyp
the Blood. You killed a person/'
"With a car, yes."
"Nobody in my family ever owned a car till I bought
one. I was over twenty years of age before I ever knew any-
body that owned a car. Now I got four of them, and I still
don't know how to drive. Well, Hubie, I got a fellow out
there I guess I kept him waiting long enough. But this was
enjoyable, this little chat. Regards to the missus and have
an enjoyable vacation, wherever you're going. Oh, the out-
lines. Take those outlines with you and just pore over them
if you get a chance."
They had one dreadful flop together, but the other
pictures Ziffrin made with Hubert Ward were financial
successes. There was the Foreign Legion picture, directed
by Ken Downey and co-starring Maxine Rodelle, the new
French import; there were two light comedies co-starring
Doris Arlington in one and Ruth St. Alban in the second;
there was the romantic reunion of Maxine Rodelle and
Hubert Ward in the daringly frank love story of life among
the artists in Bohemian Paris, France. As each of these
pictures went into production Joe Ziffrin said "It can't
miss," and it did not miss. Female stars wanted to work
with Hubert Ward; they had to share top billing with
him now, but he was an ideal leading man in that he made
the women seem attractive, desirable, and from a picture
with Hubert Ward they invariably went on to better pic-
tures. "He makes you look good," said Doris Arlington.
JOHN O HARA
"He can't help it. Playing opposite Hubie Ward is as good
as having your face lifted, and the smart girls are getting
wise to that fact. I didn't realize it till Maxine showed me.
That dame is way ahead of us Americans. She did that
Foreign Legion opera with him, and she ran it over and
over and over. Incidentally she can't stand Hubie. But she
signed for that Paris picture and she got Ziffrin to run
the Legion thing one afternoon, over and over. And she
got together with Ken Downey beforehand and they have
a scene in that picture that's the dirtiest thing I ever saw in
a thirty-five-millimeter movie. But nobody can object to it."
"What scene is that?" said Doyle Cordell.
"In the attic, about halfway through the picture.
She's going back to the guy that she left for Hubie, because
he's supposed to be dying of T.B. She's saying goodbye
to Hubie, and you know he's going to kiss her. But where s
he going to kiss her? And if you remember that scene, he
doesn't kiss her at all."
"I thought he did."
"You're a man. But he never does kiss her. That's left
to the imagination of sixty million women. If Ken had let
him kiss her smack on the mouth, it wouldn't have been
dirty. But oh no. They fade out, and no kiss, and I defy any
woman that's ever been laid not to fill in the next few min-
utes of that scene. That was entirely Maxine Rodelle's idea,
which she handed over to Ken. And there isn't a damn
thing the Hays Office can do about it. They wouldn't even
know how to write a memorandum about it."
An anonymous critic on Time wrote irritably of "pout-
ing Hubert Ward" and the participle was so right that it
THE BIG LAUGH
was taken up by other critics, but without noticeable effect
at the box office. A writer employed by Samuel Goldwyn
came up with the interesting statistic that in four succes-
sive pictures Hubert Ward had spoken the line: "Let's not
think about it." As it happened, the writer had written the
line in two of the earlier Hubert Ward pictures, and he
declared that in writing for a Hubert Ward picture the
line was unavoidable. At some point in any Hubert Ward
romance the leading man and the leading woman would
be placed in a situation that called for such a line, and it
was given to Ward. The observation got back to Hubert
Ward, and he demanded that Ziffrin buy a play by
Clifford Odets. No Odets play was available, but an
Odets imitator had a play for sale and Hubert Ward was
placated. The picture was called Prisoners of Starvation.
Hubert Ward played an idealistic young Jewish school-
teacher who gets killed in the Spanish Civil War. Aside
from some patronizingly approving reviews in the leftist
press and a few statements of the plot by leftist reviewers
in the capitalist newspapers the picture was a failure. It
was cheaply made, and Ziffrin counted on foreign sales to
minimize his loss, but overseas Prisoners was more savagely
attacked than at home: Hubert Ward and Ziffrin and the
obscure screen writers were exposed as counter-revolu-
tionaries, boring from within, who had deliberately made a
bad picture as a propaganda effort to ridicule the Loyal-
ists. It was a confusing experience for Hubert Ward, who
had only wanted to get away from "Let's not think about
it." During the production period he was slightly sur-
prised and pleased to be treated in friendly fashion by
JOHN O HARA
Hollywood intellectuals who had hitherto ignored him;
he was baffled and then annoyed by the sudden hostility
of Dwight Barley and Barley's friends and the Los Angeles
newspapers. He contributed small sums to the various
Loyalist causes, in the belief that it was good publicity for
the picture. But when the American leftists, taking their
cue from the radical journals in Paris and London, re-
considered their attitude toward Prisoners, Hubert Ward
and Ziffrin became the object of such vituperation as to
make the Los Angeles papers' hostility seem a benediction.
"I don't understand it," said Hubert Ward to his wife.
"Not hard to understand. Everybody thinks you're a
Communist except the Communists," said Nina Ward.
"You don't think I'm a Communist."
"No, not really. But you never asked me what I
thought about your doing that picture."
"Well, what did you think — now that it's all over?"
"It isn't all over. Some people are never going to for-
"Dwight and Josephine, for instance?"
"Josephine more than Dwight. And your mother. And
"That livery-stable man in Indiana, for God's sake."
"Who was very nice to us when we got married."
"Very nice to you, you mean."
"And to you. You didn't want any publicity, and he
arranged so you didn't get any."
"Well, he never liked me anyway."
"That is true. He didn't."
THE BIG LAUGH
"What a stupid question."
"Well, do you?"
"Then it wasn't such a stupid question after all."
"Yes it was. I don't have to like everything you do."
"I could fix it so you'd have a lot more to dislike."
"Yes, you could. That's entirely up to you. Who with?
"Now wait a minute, Nina. I haven't fooled around
with Maxine or anyone else, and you know it."
"Do I know it?"
"If you don't, you should."
"I don't know what I know," she said.
They had a child now, a two-year-old son called
Christopher after Christopher Columbus, Christopher
Morley, Christopher Mathewson, or the saint whose gold,
unblessed medallion was fixed to the glove compartment
of Nina's Lincoln Continental.* The child was fat and
blue-eyed and blond, and well loved by Nina and Hubert
Ward and by his half sister. Nina noticed but did not com-
ment on the fact that after the birth of her son the house
in Brentwood Heights was protected with a series of bur-
glar alarms that Hubert Ward had not suggested while there
was only Nina's daughter in the household. Hubert Ward,
who had never owned a revolver, now kept three Police
Special .38's in his bedroom, his study, and in Nina's car.
The child had an English nurse, a Miss Gribble, and Nina
° Neither the father nor the mother had heard of Christopher Ward's
JOHN O HARA
bought a boxer which she called Henry, after Henry Arm-
About two months before the baby was born, and dur-
ing the shooting of the Bohemians in Paris picture, Hubert
Ward offered Maxine Rodelle a lift to the house she had
rented in Beverly Hills. It was the first gesture of the kind
he had made to her. "Will you care to stop for a drink?"
"Of course," he said.
They were both tired and annoyed at Ken Downey,
who had been using the technique of the insult to improve
their performances. "That Ken, he is such a bastard," said
Maxine. "You have worked with him more times than I. He
does that very often?"
"Some day I walk off the set."
"He'll have the camera on you when you do, and
hell use the footage. He's a bastard all right. But he's
She was wearing black woolen slacks and a matching
sweater, quite obviously without a brassiere, and drinking
a split of champagne. Hubert Ward was drinking a Coca-
Cola. "How is your wife?" she said.
"She's fine, thanks."
"When is the birth of the baby?"
"Seven or eight weeks, they figure."
"Your first baby?"
"As far as I know," he said, with a smile.
THE BIG LAUGH
"Yes, as far as you know," she said. "I would like to
have a baby sometime."
"All right. Shall we start one?"
"No thank you. You are a good husband, Hubie. No
one expected you to be one. I was warned about you be-
fore I came to Hollywood."
"Yet you never made one single pass at me."
"Well, you've been pretty busy, Maxine."
"Is that why you never made one single pass at me?"
"No. In the old days I would have."
"That is better. A wolf, that is what I was told, but
then this wolf never made one single pass at me."
"No, but don't tempt me. I'm in the mood."
"So am I."
"You are?" He got up and sat beside her.
"I don't like a man to be as rude as Ken. I wanted to
cry but he wanted me to cry so I did not cry."
"You don't seem on the verge of tears now, but do you
want to cry now?"
"No." She put down her glass. "Affection."
He kissed her and she joined in the kiss. She drew back
her head and smiled. "They would pay to see this," she
said. She pulled her sweater over her head and she kissed
"Let's give them their money's worth," he said.
"But of course," she said. She pretended to be speak-
ing to a camerman. "Pan to the bedroom." She got up and
he followed her. She got out of slacks and girdle and sat
JOHN O H AR A
in the bed while he undressed. "How much would they
pay for us now?"
"Quite a lot."
"I think they would pay a lot. We must give them
their money's worth, Hubie. This they would pay a lot."
She again spoke to the imaginary cameraman. "Close-up
of this, please."
When it was over she said, "Thank you, Hubie."
"Thank you," he said.
"No, I will sleep better now. He was so rude to me,
"Maybe I'd better thank him."
"Why? Oh. No, you go home to your enceinte wife and
forget us. You promise?"
"I can't promise that, Maxine."
"No, you can't. But tomorrow I have my chauffeur
take me home. And the next day and all days."
"In other words, this is a one-shot."
"One-shot? Yes, a one-shot. But nice. I like you bet-
"I like you better."
She laughed. "A good lay makes friends, yes?"
"And a good bawling-out by that bastard Ken."
"Very true. Goodnight, Hubie. One kiss, and good-
He tried to be neither more nor less attentive to Nina,
but a few days later, for no immediate reason, she said,
"Pretty soon you're going to have to stay away from me
entirely, we're not going to be able to make love at all.
What will you do?"
THE BIG LAUGH
"The same as you. Do without."
"Can you? You never have."
"Sure I can."
"I knew a girl at home — this is an awful story. A girl
was having a baby and she didn't want her husband to
cheat on her, so she asked a friend to go to bed with her
husband, and the friend said she would if my friend didn't
hold it against her. Just sex."
"And what happened?"
"Well, they had sex and that was all there was to it,
but then the other girl was having a baby and she asked
my friend to do the same thing for her husband and my
friend refused. Sort of made a whore out of the other girl,
and they've never spoken since."
"Your friend was a bitch."
"My friend was me, Hubert. That's why it's such an
awful story. The girl has never forgiven me, and I don't
blame her. But I just couldn't sleep with her husband, on
"But you were willing to let Stephens sleep with a
friend of yours."
"Not willing. But I agreed, for health reasons."
"Next question. Was it your idea, or Stephens's?"
"He convinced you that it would have been bad for
his health to give up sex?"
"Amazing. What was his argument? How did he con-
"Listen, I didn't know anything about men, from per-
JOHN O HARA
sonal experience. He had no trouble convincing me. I be-
lieved everything he told me about men. He said it was
something about the prostate gland. It was so long ago I
don't remember very well, all the details. But he explained
that it was harmful to stop, once a man had got used to it."
"How could you have been so naive? You're not about
"I don't know, but I was. The whole thing about men
mystifies me anyway. A woman — well, you can either put
it in or you can't put it in. But a man has to get hard, and
why does he get hard sometimes and sometimes can't. The
doctor tried to explain it to me, but I guess I didn't listen
carefully, or I was embarrassed or something."
"Still another question. The girl that Stephens slept
with. Did you choose her, or did Stephens?"
"He did, or we both did. He suggested two or three
names, and I picked one."
"The least attractive?"
"No, she wasn't. But I knew she'd had other affairs and
I thought it would matter the least to her."
"And so you had her over for tea one afternoon and
suggested she might do you the favor of sleeping with your
"Almost like that. 7 went to her house. I was quite big,
bigger than I am now."
"Go on. It's quite a scene."
"I said I was going to be frank and I wanted her to be,
too. I said Wayne needed somebody to sleep with, and
would she do it? I promised her I wouldn't be jealous and
would keep it a secret, and that she'd be doing me a favor.
THE BIG LAUGH
And she said she would as long as her husband didn't find
out about it."
"Where did they get together, the girl and your hus-
Nina was silent, then said, "In our house."
"With you waiting downstairs?"
"I usually went for a walk, but sometimes I waited
"Oh, this went on for quite a while?"
"Over two months."
"Then you put a stop to it?"
"Yes. When I could resume relations with him."
"Resume relations. Weren't you jealous of the girl?"
"Horribly. But I tried to make myself believe I wasn't,
that it was only sex."
"Like two animals? No fun? No affection?"
"I didn't let myself think about it too much."
"Did you go on being friends with the girl?"
"Curiously enough, I liked her a lot, and more than 1
ever had. But I never felt the same way about him. Es-
pecially when I found out that he'd made a fool of me."
"Didn't you feel that that gave you the right to have
an affair with somebody?"
"I suppose I did."
"But you didn't have an affair with somebody else?"
"But you could have very easily, when your friend
got pregnant and asked you to."
"I know. But with me it always had to be more than
sex. I couldn't have got in bed with her husband. I could
JOHN O HARA
have got in bed, but I couldn't have done anything. I'd
have frozen up. But the girl has never spoken to me again,
and I don't blame her."
"Now, the big question. Why did you let Stephens
get away with it?"
"Because for two reasons. I was afraid of him, and I
was in love with him."
"How afraid? I didn't think you'd ever been afraid of
anyone or anything."
"Not physically. Not that he would beat me or any-
thing like that. A man wouldn't understand this. But I was
afraid that he'd go have other women, and I'd lose him and
my marriage. He wasn't a great lover or anything like
that. I was much more of a woman than he was a man, sex-
ually. In plain language, he didn't always satisfy me. But
for some strange reason that was part of the hold he had
on me. Sometimes he did satisfy me, and I'd be crazy about
him. But when he didn't satisfy me, I blamed myself, al-
though I must have known better."
"You wouldn't sleep with me before we were married."
"And when I first knew you you kept saying you
wouldn't have anything messy. You don't call that messy,
your husband and your friend?"
"I call it very messy. Don't you see how I hated it?"
"I suppose so."
"You suppose so? If you slept with another woman
now I'd leave you. I wouldn't go through that again. And
here the temptation is much worse, not to speak of the
opportunities. All these actresses."
THE BIG LAUGH
"Oh, nuts to that, Nina. It was one of your Lake Forest
suburbanites that slept with your husband. And you, a
Lake Forest suburbanite, that arranged it. Don't be so
high and mighty about actresses."
"I was thinking more of opportunities, but I shouldn't
have spoken that way about actresses."
"No, you shouldn't."
I m sorry.
Hubert Ward made a second effort in the direction of
Maxine Rodelle but this one was unsuccessful. "Find
someone else, Papa," she said. He found no one else be-
cause he looked for no one else, and he remained, with
that single exception, faithful to Nina. It was annoying
therefore that more than two years later she should single
out Maxine Rodelle as a candidate for his attentions;
particularly annoying, of course, because his relations with
Maxine had been not quite completely innocent.
The minor disaster of Hubert Ward's single tenuous
connection with Weltpolitik had no effect on his standing
as a leading man. Ziffrin quickly put him in a South Sea
island picture (shot at Catalina) with Maxine Rodelle
beautifully miscast as a missionary's widow and a new-
comer, Zella Flowers, as a half-caste child of nature.
Maxine hated every minute of the competition with the
Flowers bosom, and as a consequence the miscasting
turned into an asset as she moved sternly through the pic-
ture, disapproving the infatuation of the copra planter
(Hubert Ward) and the Polynesian maiden. The picture,
in Ziffrin's words, made a mint of money in spite of a par-
JOHN O HARA
tial boycott in the Southern states, where Miss Flowers was
declared to be a mulatto. Her real name was Ellen
Flannigan and she came from Buffalo, New York, but with
a black wig, the right make-up, and her little Irish nose she
looked plenty Polynesian. Ziffrin hesitated too long about
putting her under contract and lost her to Metro, where
she almost immediately became the mistress of Martin
Ruskin, in his third year as a producer at the Culver City
studio. Without the black wig Zella Flowers made the first
of many appearances in the bread-and-butter series
created and produced by Martin Ruskin, which told of
romance and adventure in the life of a big city hospital.
That old favorite of the legitimate theater, Philip W. Car-
stairs, was brought out of retirement to play the crotch-
ety, lovable, non-denominational chaplain in the series,
which were written by Ralph Harding, the Broadway
playwright. The head nurse was played by Hildegarde
Finney, another favorite of the legitimate theater.
As of anno Domini 1936 a fair statement of the fame
of Hubert Ward would have been that his name and face
were known in every community on earth that was served
by electric current. It was probably true, and very nearly
provable, that wherever there was the power to run a pro-
jection machine, his name and his likeness were familiar
to men, women and children who would sit or stand to
watch a Hubert Ward cinema. In many lands his true
voice was less well known, since the voices of other men
were substituted for Hubert Ward's, but in the hill towns
of Northern India and in villages in Northern Ireland his
THE BIG LAUGH
appearance on the main thoroughfare would have stopped
traffic for the same reason that the citizens of Hightstown,
New Jersey, U.S.A., would have stared and gathered
round him, eager to touch him, to have him scribble his
name on a piece of paper. He was a big movie star. A big
movie star. In the foreign lands they might — and usually
did — change the titles of his pictures, but Hubert Ward's
name stayed. He was often used by preachers as a handy
symbol for sin; but he was also useful to the manufacturers
of Chevrolets, Old Golds, Coca-Cola, and Colgate-Palm-
olive-Peet products, whom he helped by recommending
their wares. He had long since ceased to be known as the
New York theater actor; in far-off places there were men
and women who had seen Hubert Ward on screens under
galvanized iron roofs, to whom the name New York meant
nothing whatever. His photograph, cabinet-size and
signed, rested on piano tops in the living quarters of
royalty, and he now got mail addressed to Hubert Ward
U.S.A. without delay. The larger mass of people were
totally uncritical of his work as an actor; it was enough for
them that he passed before their eyes once, twice, seven
or eight times a year, embracing pretty women, engaged in
combat with strong men, getting into and out of perilous
situations; showing pleasure and fear and pain and sorrow.
At least two women committed suicide with his photo-
graph somewhere near them, and a young man in Danville,
Illinois, had collected more than 9,000 newspaper and
magazine clippings in which the name Hubert Ward was
mentioned. A woman in Cleveland, Ohio, christened her
twins Hubert Ward and Ward Hubert Malikowski. The
JOHN O H AR A
Hubert Ward Fan Clubs, Incorporated, no longer a studio-
inspired stunt, published a monthly bulletin with a circu-
lation of 200,000 copies distributed in the English-speak-
ing countries, and annually the newly elected president
of the Fan Clubs made a trip to Hollywood for a two-day
visit with their idol and the presentation of a cheque in his
honor to the Boy Scouts of America, the Motion Picture Re-
lief Fund, or some equally worthy cause. A judge in
Queens County, New York, refused to permit a German-
Jewish refugee to change his name to Hubert Ward, on
the ground that a new citizen ought to choose a worthier
name than that of a movie actor.
The perquisites of his kind of fame were many; the
potency of it was great so long as it was not put to any test.
The perquisites consisted largely of luxuries and small
courtesies. Hubert Ward would usually talk his way out
of minor traffic offenses without displaying one of the nu-
merous badges and shields signifying honorary member-
ship in police departments and sheriffs' posses. He could
cash a cheque anywhere in the world, and get a good table
in a restaurant. When he traveled the railroads made him
comfortable, and the telephone company would install an
extension in his house in three hours. Such small favors as
did not come to him on his own could be obtained through
the studio. At the studio he was given princely treatment;
beginning with his first appearance in the early morning,
when the gate would be swung open for him so that he
could proceed without halting, the studio made him feel
important. His portrait in oils dominated the commissary,
and he could leave his car unattended anywhere except
THE BIG LAUGH
in the space reserved for Joe Ziffrin. His dressing-room was
actually a suite, redecorated annually and providing
luxurious living quarters if he wished to spend the night
on the lot. He was Mister Ward to men and women twice
his age, and, in certain cases, many times his ability. He
was a big movie star, getting the treatment reserved for
big movie stars, and no outsider attempting to understand
a movie star could ever merely imagine the effect of all the
homage, servility, and obsequiousness that went with star-
dom. It had to be seen, and seen day after day, to be ap-
preciated, and almost no one saw it who was not part of
the industry. The outsider would hear about fantastic
salaries, and could see the examples of conspicuous
spending by the stars themselves — the houses, the motor
cars, the jewelry, the furs — but it was the day-to-day,
hour-by-hour, taken-for-granted, freely accorded palace
treatment that affected these men and women, most of
them of humble origin. A girl who at sixteen had run away
with a trombonist in Sousa's band now had a private purse
and an entourage befitting a queen; a young man who had
been happy to get $10 on his twenty-first birthday and had
been afraid of going to prison over a $37.50 cheque was
now as famous as the Prince of Wales.
The women were more adaptable to their new cir-
cumstances than the men. Doris Arlington, for all her com-
mon sense and realistic attitudes, still typified the female
stars' quick and continuing acceptance of their position.
They were movie queens, and they lived up to their station
and the accompanying responsibility to what they properly
called their public. Privately, surreptitiously, they might
JOHN O HARA
make shrewd investments, but Garbo alone could ec-
centrically own an obsolescent Lincoln and successfully re-
sist the demands on her privacy; and even Garbo in the
beginning had posed in a track suit for publicity photo-
graphs. Doris Arlington, Constance Bennett, Joan Craw-
ford, Kay Francis, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, and
Ruth St. Alban did what was expected of them, and Dolly
Madison and Marie Antoinette had not done it better.
But the men were uncomfortable. There was always,
with the men — including the most inflated egotisms among
them — an embarrassed reluctance to take full part in
the royal ceremonials at the premieres, the industry ban-
quets, the sporting events. The men were always a little
awkward, always a bit apologetic, sometimes discernibly
timorous, as though in fear of a rude remark or a rotten
tomato. They were extremely aware of the fact that a top
hat is a traditional target, that tailcoats were rare in South-
ern California, and that acting has never been regarded
as the manliest way to earn a living. Consequently they
had to force themselves to be cheerfully polite to the
peculiar people who infested the ceremonials, and there
was not a big star in the industry who could talk grace-
fully for three minutes without a script. They wanted to
get away from the microphone in a hurry, and luckily they
usually did. Unfortunately, they did not stay away com-
pletely or permanently; they were actors, and so long as
other actors would be making appearances at the cere-
monials, they all wanted to be there. It is above all a
It was also a demanding occupation without quite be-
THE BIG LAUGH
ing hard work. It was repetitive and monotonous, and
therefore tiring; and on occasion there were discomforts
and, on some fewer occasions, physical hazards. But some-
where between the work and the disproportionate rewards
something was missing, and that absent factor was a feel-
ing of accomplishment. No man in his right mind could
continue to convince himself that his work in a picture was
hard work as digging ditches is hard work, dangerous
work as stringing transmission lines is dangerous work, or
useful work as surgery, teaching, or farming is useful work.
And even the advanced cases of egotism could not uphold
their acting abilities against the seldom expressed but con-
stantly implied superiority of men who had trouped with
Merivale and Standing and Sothern and Cohan. The fame
and the money were earned only to the extent that in the
general inflation of notoriety and profit a man was entitled
to his share, but neither the acting nor the rewards pro-
vided the satisfaction of accomplishment, and the male
stars sought escape from the unrealities in various ways.
For some the means of escape was women; for others,
booze; for a few, gambling. And some escaped by escaping
to sport, to non-professional companionship, to periods of
privacy at places removed from the movie colony. There
were some who could shoot, and they shot; some who could
honestly sail a sloop, and they sailed. They were the lucky
ones, who would sit in their dressing-rooms between takes
and dream and talk of the guns they had ordered from
Purdey and the animals they would destroy; the boats
they had ordered from Olin Stephens and the waters they
would sail in. There were a few who got invited to the
JOHN O HARA
parties on Long Island, and campaigned for their Racquet
Club hatbands. There were others who fled to foreign tol-
erance to escape from their heterosexual masquerade. And
there were the pitiful ones who took trips on which they
were accompanied by a studio press agent and who got
out at every five-minute stop to attract movie fans.
Hubert Ward had escaped into respectability a short
time before becoming a big star, and respectability re-
mained his personal escape instead of women, alcohol,
gambling, guns, sailing, homosexuality, social-climbing,
or the intellectual pursuits that attracted almost no one of
his standing. The novelty of respectability after his
picaresque early life remained sufficiently attractive to
have held him for possibly four or five years, but Nina had
knowingly married a rogue, and one morning at twenty
minutes to eleven, one night at half-past eight, and then
at various times of various days she discovered and re-
discovered that the domesticated rogue was boring her.
It was not the way things were supposed to work out,
according to men and women who had known Hubert
Ward. All the predictions held that Hubert Ward within a
year of his marriage would be sleeping with his co-stars or
anyone else who caught his fancy and was agreeable. Nina
herself had been vigilant against some such development.
But except for the lapse with Maxine Rodelle, Hubert
Ward had been faithful to his wife, and in his fidelity he
had failed her. Nina's vigilance was a stimulating habit,
and when the necessity for it apparently had vanished,
Hubert ceased to be stimulating. Likewise their life in
Southern California. Nina had believed that she was afraid
THE BIG LAUGH
of what the motion picture industry could do to a marriage,
and she was at first pleased that their life was as little
different as possible in the circumstances from life in Lake
Forest. But the day came when their life was, in effect,
Lake Forest, Los Angeles County, California, and Dwight
and Josephine Barley and their friends, assisted by Hubert
Ward, had banished picture people. Nina's pleasure in
this accomplishment lasted only as long as her movie star
husband was exciting.
"Let's have a party and have the whole movie crowd,"
she said one evening.
"Good God, what for?"
"Do you object? I thought you'd be pleased. We owe
thousands of invitations."
"Thousands of invitations we declined."
"That's just it. Before you married me you'd have gone,
and every once in a while a little remark here and there — I
get the feeling that they resent me."
"No, I don't like to be a villainess," she said. "Fancy
dress! Come as your favorite villainess, or villain. How about
"Well, what the hell— all right."
They took over the Victor Hugo restaurant and hired
Phil Oilman's orchestra. Fifteen outstanding movie ac-
tresses came as Mata Hari without duplicating costumes;
eight men came as John Wilkes Booth, and one of them
had a fist fight with one of the three men who came
as Adolf Hitler. Two women came as Shirley Temple. A
Pasadena friend of the Dwight Barleys arrived in a wheel-
JOHN O HARA
chair, impersonating Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Nero was
popular among the stout guests, outnumbering Benito
Mussolini eight to five. Catherine de Medicis, Cleopatra,
Catherine of Russia, Sappho, Lydia Pinkham (im-
personated by Jack Rodney, the hair stylist), Queen Eliza-
beth, Marie Antoinette, and Amelia Bloomer (imper-
sonated by Karll Langlie, the set dresser) were repre-
sented as villainesses. The villain- villainess theme was
somewhat distorted by actors and actresses coming as
heroes and heroines, owing to the rather limited supply of
readily recognizable symbols of wickedness. Hubert Ward
dressed as Satan; Nina, in tights and fig leaves, as Eve
After the Fall, the first villainess of all. They had a dinner
party for forty at their house, and the first guests were al-
ready dancing when they arrived at the restaurant shortly
before eleven o'clock. It was almost the last Hubert Ward
saw of his wife until the party broke up at five. "I don't
know if anybody else had a good time, but I did," she said.
"Nice of you to ask."
"In other words, you didn't. You danced a lot."
"Oh, you noticed that? Who was the character
dressed as Benedict Arnold, or I guess he was supposed to
be Benedict Arnold."
"Very smart of you. People kept asking him if he was
supposed to be George Washington. That was Michael Tre-
"You ought to know. He's a writer at Metro."
"How would I know a writer at Metro? They have a
THE BIG LAUGH
hundred writers at Metro, most of them nobody ever
"You must have heard of this one. He writes plays. He
wrote Love and Anna Collier. Wasn't that a big hit?"
"It was a big hit. I never read it. Who did he come
"Joan and Franchot. They asked to bring him."
"Not here. She's staying back East."
"Well, you kept him from getting homesick for one
"Very good dancer. Well, I'm glad we gave the party.
It was well timed. People were criticizing me. It doesn't pay
to be a snob. They couldn't hurt me, but they could take it
out on you. Ziffrin said it was a very good idea to have the
party just at this time."
"Because a lot of people had never met me, and they
sort of resented me. We don't have to have them swarm-
ing all over our house, but industry good will — anyway,
that's what Ziffrin said."
"Ziffrin is full of shit. If it was such a good idea I'll
send him the bill. This thing is going to run close to twenty
"Don't you take it off your income tax?"
"That isn't the same as handing me twenty thousand
"Well, I had a good time, and 111 pay half if you want
JOHN O HARA
"You must have had a good time. When are we seeing
Mr. Tremaine again?"
"How did you know that?"
"When are we?"
"He's coming out to play tennis next Sunday. I
thought we could have a few people in for lunch, and those
that wanted to play tennis, could."
"Nina, what gives?"
"What gives what?"
"This brawl tonight, and next Sunday people for
"Don't you ever get tired of the same old faces? I do.
You see other people at the studio, but I might just as well
be in Lake Forest."
"You'd never wear that costume in Lake Forest."
"But I'm not in Lake Forest. Ziffrin said I could have a
"Aren't you proud?"
"Oh, he wasn't serious."
"Maybe not about the screen test, but a screen test
costs a thousand dollars."
"Are you implying that Joe Ziffrin wouldn't give a
thousand dollars to sleep with me? If you are, you're
wrong. And if you think Joe Ziffrin was the only one that
propositioned me tonight you have another think coming."
"I see. That's what you consider a good time."
"Any girl does, and heaven knows, Hubert, it's a long
time since I've had a compliment from you."
"Cost me twenty thousand dollars to find out that
THE BIG LAUGH
you're getting bored with me. Expensive education. Good-
Michael Tremaine was a tall man with bushy greying
hair, who chop-stroked every ball, forehand and backhand,
and laughed contemptuously when he scored points. "I
play to win," he said. "The hell with form."
"But you've got the meanest chop, you put the worst
cut on the ball," said Nina.
"What are you squawking about? You beat me."
"But I'm exhausted after two sets."
"The hell you are. Let's play some doubles. Hubie?"
"No thanks, I'm not playing today."
"Come on, for Christ's sake. Work up a sweat, it'll do
"No thanks. I really don't like to play against a chop
"Why not? It's all tennis."
"That's just it, I don't think it is."
"Tell you what I'll do. I'll play you for a hundred dol-
lars, and I don't know how good you are."
"Hubert would beat you, Mike."
"Maybe he would, but the offer's still good."
"I honestly don't think I want a hundred dollars that
"All right, make it worth your while. I'll play you for
a thousand dollars."
"Why are you so anxious to play me? I'm not going
to play you, so stop making those ridiculous offers."
Tremaine reached in the pocket of his tennis shorts
JOHN O H AR A
and drew out a money clip. It was stuffed out of shape with
too many banknotes. He counted off ten bills. "One
thousand dollars. It's not a ridiculous offer."
"Oh, of course you have the money. I'm sure every-
body knows that. What I wanted to know was, why do
you want to play me? If I wanted to play you I'd play you
"Oh, it's personal."
"I guess it must be, yes. I've seen you play, and Nina's
right. I think I could take away your thousand dollars with-
out a hell of a lot of trouble, chop stroke or no chop stroke.
But why do you want to play me?"
"Oh, give up, both of you. Hubert, you make me so
damn mad," said Nina.
"Why do I make you mad?"
"Let's not go into it," she said. "Come on, Mike, we'll
get two others and play doubles."
"I'm going to take a nap. By the way, Tremaine, you
don't have to carry your money in your pants pocket. It's
safe here." Hubert Ward walked away, said a few words to
the other guests, and retired to his room. He turned on the
radio and lay on his bed, and after a while he fell asleep.
The California sun had disappeared when he was awak-
ened by Nina's presence in his room. "Are you looking
for something?" he said.
"Yes. A coat for Mike. Can I borrow your old polo
"No, I'm fond of that coat. Where are you going?"
"We're all going down to Malibu for supper. Shall I
tell him you refused to lend him a coat?"
THE BIG LAUGH
"I don't give a God damn what you tell him. Take
another coat, for Christ's sake. That Burberry, the blue
tweed. I don't like it, I never did. When will you be back?"
"I don't know. Nine-thirty. Ten, probably. We're go-
ing to that place that used to be Thelma Todd's."
"I didn't ask you where you were going — "
"Yes you did."
"Yes, so I did. But I don't really care. I just wanted to
know what to tell the children."
"I've said goodnight to the children. I don't know why
you're being so disagreeable, but I haven't time to talk
about it now."
"Let me know when you do have time, and you can
fit me into your busy schedule."
"Ill think about it." She put the blue tweed coat over
her arm and departed, and in a few minutes he heard the
cars leaving the property. He put on a suit and went to
the nursery to say goodnight to his son, and he stopped and
kissed Nina's daughter (whom he had legally adopted) in
her room. He took the Continental and drove up to Sunset
Boulevard and turned toward Beverly Hills for no other
reason than an instinctive desire to go in the opposite di-
rection from Nina and the others. The traffic was heavy,
but he had nowhere to go, and in a little less than an hour
he was in his suite at the studio. The silence was oppressive,
and he had not felt so alone since the final days on
the Cape, with the prospect of a jobless New York ahead of
The silence was formidable. There was a radio in the
suite, but he did not wish to break the silence with the
JOHN O HARA
radio. He looked several times at the telephones, but no
one would be calling him from outside the studio. No one
but the watchman at the studio gate knew where he was.
No one in the world but that one man in his sentry-box,
reading the early edition of the Los Angeles Examiner,
and too well trained in the eccentricities of movie stars to
risk disturbing Hubert Ward. "I'm sure he expects a dame
to show up," said Hubert Ward, breaking the silence.
He was a prisoner. He could not go alone to the Vine
Street Brown Derby without having to answer questions.
He could not call anyone without raising questions. It was
Sunday night, and he could not even make a play for
any of the studio women in the Zinrin manner. He could
not show up at Maxine Rodelle's or Ruth St. Alban's or Doris
Arlington's. He looked at his watch and at the clocks in the
suite; it was twenty past eight and all the people he knew
were having Sunday night supper. The little girls he had
once known were all five years older than they had been
when he last called them — married, dead, working as
waitresses, featured players, living with their lovers, busy,
busy, busy. Golsen! Jack Golsen.
He telephoned Golsen at his apartment, but there
was no answer. He was disappointed, then just as well
pleased. Golsen would have a girl and a table at the Troc-
adero for ten o'clock, and he would make an emergency, a
crisis, of a telephone call from Hubert Ward at this odd
hour on a Sunday. Golsen would get rid of his girl, come to
the studio, start guessing and master-minding — and from
preaching he would proceed to procuring. Golsen was no
solution, but one valuable thought had occurred while he
THE BIG LAUGH
had Golsen in mind: this was not an emergency, but
Hubert Ward knew it to be a crisis. Twenty-six past eight.
He thought of calling KNX, the radio station. "Girls
of Southern California," he would say. "This is Hubert
Ward. I am all alone in my suite at the U. S. Films studio.
Come and get it." He wandered about, gazing at the pho-
tographs he knew so well of himself in scenes from all his
pictures. Some but not all of the photographs included
women; friends, mistresses, mistresses who had become
friends, but there was not one he could call now, for con-
versation, for consolation, or for sex. He was not quite
ready to commit himself to adultery; if he did, Nina
would know it the moment they confronted each other.
And there was no one in Hollywood, no one in the entire
world, in whom he could confide his tentative contempla-
tion of infidelity. The suite was crowded with reassuring
evidences of his fame, and it was the fame that had be-
come so precious that it compelled him to sit alone with it
and nothing else in a silent studio on a Sunday night, while
the free and anonymous ones could be with each other.
Ten minutes of nine.
He went out and started his car. "Forgot something,
Jerry," he said to the watchman.
"Coming back, Mr. Ward?"
"I don't know, I'm not sure," he said. He drove up to
Sunset and headed homeward.
She came home shortly before eleven. She hung his coat
in the foyer closet. "Mike asked me to thank you for the
coat," she said. "Did you go out for supper?"
JOHN O HARA
"I went down to the studio. No, I didn't have any sup-
"What did you get all dressed for?"
"I was going to spend the night at the studio, but after
I was there a while I changed my mind."
"Haven't you had anything to eat?"
"Yes. I had some corn flakes and a sliced banana, in
"I had the worst steak I ever ate, bar none. One thing
about coming from the Middle West, it spoils you for the
rest of the country when it comes to steaks. Don't you want
something more to eat?"
"Well, then I'm off to bed. Did you leave word what
time you want to be called?"
"I won't see you that early. Is the Thermos in the
kitchen with your coffee?"
"Coffee, and the orange juice is squeezed. Before you
leave, what about Tremaine?"
"What about him?"
"Well, are you seeing him again?"
"Hubert, I haven't seen Tremaine, the way you imply.
I haven't been alone with him. He wants me to have
lunch with him tomorrow, but I can't. However, I am hav-
ing lunch with him and two other people on Friday,
and he's coming here to play tennis next Sunday."
"No he isn't."
"Yes he is. Don't make an issue of Mike Tremaine, or
you may be sorry."
THE BIG LAUGH
"I may be sorry if I don't. I don't want the son of a
bitch in my house."
"I never said a word when you had friends of yours
I didn't particularly like. But if I can't have my friends
here, I'll just have to meet them elsewhere. Take your
"Tremaine is no friend of yours. You've seen him twice
— as far as I know."
"I'm not going to have an affair with Mike Tremaine."
"How do you know?"
"Because I don't want to. You've gone away for weeks
at a time, on location, and had breakfast, lunch and dinner
with other women and I haven't complained. So I repeat,
don't make an issue of Mike Tremaine."
"I have made an issue of him."
"All right. Ill disinvite him for next Sunday. It's your
house. But in that case I'll tell him I've changed my mind
"You're going to have lunch with him tomorrow and
"Okay, Nina. You haven't come to bed with me since
we had that God damn party, and now you're slapping me
in the face with this noisy, cheap showoff. I gather you
know what you're doing."
"I know what I'm doing, and I know a veiled threat
when I hear one, too."
"Well, I'll take the veil off it. Tremaine is a married
man, and you're having lunch with him three times in one
week — "
JOHN O HARA
"Three times. Plus dinner tonight. You've never done
that before. If you're not having an affair with him you're
giving it a damn good chance to develop into one."
"If it does, I'll tell you."
"Thanks, you're so honorable it kills me."
The first public notice of trouble was in a New York
paper, in the form of a question by the columnist Ed Sul-
livan: "The Hubert Wards acting silly?"
"What about this, Hube? Is there any truth in it?"
said Joe Ziffrin.
"Just Nina taking an interest in play-writing," said
"I didn't know you'd be so frank about it," said Ziffrin.
"Why the hell not?"
"Yeah, why the hell not, as long as you stay out of
"We're nowhere near that stage."
"I flatter myself I'm an expert on women, but what
does Nina see in this Tremaine?"
"Well, for that matter, what did she see in me?"
"That's easy. You got the answer to that in fifty mil-
lion women going to your pictures. But no woman I know
of would ever pay money to see Tremaine, in or out of pic-
tures. I guess he's so different from you. Well, Hube, a cer-
tain party named Zella Flowers been asking me about you.
She saw this thing in Ed's column."
"I hear she's Marty Ruskin's girl."
"No girl is Marty Ruskin's girl for long. And anyway,
what if she was? You wouldn't be marrying her. Maybe
THE BIG LAUGH
Marty would, but you wouldn't. They keep asking in the
papers, when is Marty Ruskin marching up the aisle with
Zella Flowers. Questions like that are responsible for a
hell of a lot of marriages in this business. The dame wants
a husband, and a guy like Marty figures what the hell, a
luscious young broad for a couple years. Maybe a kid or
two. And in Marty's case, to convince people he give up
being a fag. You never had a thing with Doris Arlington,
did you? That always surprised me. You two would of been
a natural, somewhere along the line."
"A lot of people thought that, I guess. But when I was
on the town I wasn't big enough."
"Big enough where? I know, I just couldn't resist the
gag. I don't care what you do, Hube. Zella Flowers. Doris.
But now nobody's gonna blame you, whereas till recently
they would have."
"All right. Come and have dinner Tuesday," said Doris
He went to her house, having had his secretary tele-
phone Nina that he would not be home for dinner. Doris
was wearing black velvet slacks and an embroidered
blouse, and she sat with her legs arranged tailor fashion in
what may have been deliberately discouraging to physical
intimacy. She came immediately to the point. "You know
I have a fellow," she said.
"Doyle Cordell? Is he still it?"
"Just so you know that, Hubie. But if you want some-
body to talk to, you're my friend and Nina never was. I like
Nina all right, but she could never be a friend of mine.
JOHN O HARA
Ruth is the only woman friend I have, and I don't trust
her too much either. So what's on your mind? First I'll
ask you a question. Is Nina going to bed with this
I m not sure.
"You have some doubts about it. If you want my opin-
ion, I don't think she is. That's not saying she won't, but I
have a hunch she isn't yet. You want what I think in a nut-
shell, Nina is attracted to Tremaine because he's about as
different from you as anyone could be. Now. But you were
different, too, when you first knew Nina. Now you're get-
ting more and more like that brother-in-law, Barley, and
Tremaine is as different from you now as you were from
Barley five or six years ago, whenever it was."
Nothing else that was said during the evening stayed
with him through the next day.
A couple of weeks passed, and Hubert Ward was ly-
ing on the sofa in his suite at the studio during the lunch
break. His telephone buzzed. "Will you see Mr. Martin
Ruskin?" said Lillian, his secretary.
"Will I see him? Is he here?"
"In the reception room."
"All right, bring him in."
Hubert Ward remained on the sofa. "I'm sure you'll
forgive me for not getting up," he said. "What the hell
do you want?"
Ruskin had aged, not so much in the inevitable ways
of natural aging — hair, skin, teeth — as in the sad evidences
of the confirmed voluptuary, especially in the clouded
THE BIG LAUGH
eyes and the thick, undisciplined lips. "You know damn
well what I want. I want you to stop bothering Zella. I'm
going to marry Zella — or I was."
"I expected some cheap wisecrack from you, Hubie.
Richard Hubert Ward. But I don't have time for your wise-
"You seem to have all the time in the world, Marty.
Driving all the way from Culver City during lunch hour."
"You were with her the night before last. You had her
over here Monday afternoon. Sunday you were at her
apartment all afternoon. Three times you been with her
this past week."
"I thought Bill Powell was the Thin Man on your
lot. Do you do this shadowing yourself or did you hire a
"You see this?" said Ruskin.
Hubert Ward raised his head. "I see it. Put it away or
it might go off." In Ruskin's hand lay a Colt .25 automatic
"I carry it with me. The next time I see you with Zella
I'm going to use it. You lousy son of a bitch, I took enough
from you, you dirty stinking bastard. You ruined my life."
"I ruined your life? I haven't even seen you for damn
near ten years. Use your head. Put that thing away and
pull yourself together."
"This is loaded, I tell you."
"I know it's loaded, and you've got the God damned
safety off. I've handled guns more than you have, Marty.
Put the gun on the table. Go on, Marty. Put it on the table."
JOHN O HARA
"Marty, put the gun on the table and let me unload
it. I'll give it back to you. You don't want to shoot me, you
don't want to shoot anybody. But that thing can go off and
you will shoot me or shoot yourself. Put the gun down on
the table and then we can talk."
Ruskin laid the gun on a coffee table.
"Now sit down," said Hubert Ward. He did not rise
from the sofa. "Do you want a drink? What do you want?
"I don't want anything from you. Nothing." Ruskin
backed into a chair, sat down and put his head in his
hands, and Hubert Ward quickly got up and removed the
clip and ejected the remaining cartridge. "I'll send this to
you at Metro. Do you want a drink?"
"Then go on home and get some sleep. You look as if
you hadn't slept for a week."
"A week? It's over a week. Give me back my gun."
"No. Ill send it to you tomorrow," said Hubert Ward.
"Marty, if this got around you'd be cooked."
"I don't care."
"Don't be a fool. You've got a damn good job, you're
making plenty of dough." Ruskin was not listening, but
Hubert Ward continued. "You can go on making plenty of
dough. They like you at Metro and you can stay there
Ruskin suddenly got up and walked out. Hubert Ward
put the pistol and ammunition in a desk drawer, and tele-
phoned Zella Flowers at the Metro studio.
THE BIG LAUGH
"Your friend was here. He just left," said Hubert
"Marty? Did you have any trouble?"
"Zella, I don't want to frighten you, but he came here
with a gun. I conned him out of it. Ive got it here. But he
can get another one easily enough."
"He told me he was going to kill you, but I thought
he was bluffing. What do you think I ought to do?"
"I don't know. He said he was going to marry you."
"He talked about it, but I don't want to marry him."
"Then I don't think you'd better see him any more."
"That's not going to be so easy. I work for him."
"Yes. That makes it tough."
"And I'm under contract here."
"Yes. Well, then maybe you'd better not see me for a
"Just like that?"
"For a while. And let's not kid ourselves. Do you want
to get shot over me?"
"It was you he was going to shoot, not me. But if you're
afraid — what the hell?"
"I'm afraid. I'm always afraid when a man has a gun.
You ought to be, too, especially a guy like Ruskin. You
know he's a fag."
"He told me he went that way sometimes. But he says
he loves me."
"He probably does, Zella. But the point is, he's a bit
cracked in the head, I think. What they call emotionally
JOHN O HARA
"True. But right now we're talking about Ruskin. Rus-
kin and you. You have to decide, I'm only telling you what
happened five minutes ago."
"Well, he knows exactly when I've seen you lately,
either by having you followed or following you himself."
"The little son of a bitch."
"Yes. The question is, Zella, do we want to take a
chance on getting shot or shot at — and the publicity would
be just as bad if we got shot at. And the other thing is,
you work for Ruskin."
"This sounds to me like you were asking me to give
myself the brush-off. That's a switch, I will say that much.
"It was fun, sweetie." She hung up, and he never
heard her speak again. He was to hear her voice again, on
sound tracks of the few films she had made. But she died
that night, and Marty Ruskin along with her, in her apart-
ment on South Rodeo Drive. The bullets came from a .32
Smith & Wesson revolver, and though no note was found,
the police declared it to be a case of homicide and suicide,
unmistakably a lovers' quarrel.
The Ruskin-Flowers story was so lacking in mystery
that it vanished from the papers in a few days, and Hubert
Ward was not mentioned at all except in the list of Zella's
films. The theory was advanced that the reason for the shoot-
ings was religious differences between Ruskin and Zella,
which prevented their marriage. But religion was a touchy
THE BIG LAUGH
subject that at that time did not sell papers, and Ruskin was
not identified as a Jew or Zella as a Roman Catholic.
Ruskin, moreover, from the standpoint of news value was a
dull, uninteresting man, who had never produced an "A"
picture or been associated with any of Metro's top stars.
The story lasted as long as it did only because it provided
opportunities to publish photographs of Zella in Poly-
nesian prints and bathing suits. The Los Angeles photog-
raphers who covered Ruskin's memorial service had to be
satisfied with producers, bit players, character actors and
a few writers. Zella's body was shipped back to Buffalo,
New York, where her requiem Mass got only local coverage.
Metro sent out an announcement of the next picture in the
hospital series, but did not mention Ruskin or Zella
Flowers. In the word that was to become familiar a few
years later, they were expendable; in the then still cur-
rent slang of the industry, their tragedy laid an egg. They
had never made it big, Ruskin as a producer, or Zella as an
actress. Hollywood was willing to forget them, and
promptly did so.
But Hubert Ward did not.
"You all right about this, Hube?" said Joe Ziffrin,
in the first days of the notoriety.
"I guess I'm safe, if that's what you mean. The cops
haven't been around, and I guess they won't be now."
"I didn't only mean it from that angle. What did
Ruskin want the day he was here?"
"You knew he was here?"
"Sure I knew. I have to make sure I know it if a pro-
JOHN O H AR A
ducer from another lot visits one of my top stars. He
wanted to talk about Zella?"
"He threatened me with a .25. I talked him out of it.
I have the God damn gun in my desk drawer."
"Let me have it and 111 get rid of it for you. I'll drop
it in the Channel on the way over to Catalina. You
depressed about Zella?"
"How did you know that?"
"Well, what the hell. You're that human, and she was
a good little doll. Four-five years she would of got fat and
probably ended up a hooker, but she could certainly — well,
she's dead so let's leave her respectable."
"Oh, you, too?"
"Hubie. A thing like that I wouldn't pass up. Sure. But
she was a good Joe. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but when
she got fat I would of always given her a couple days' work,
if there was a spot for her. Some you're glad to see the last
of, but her I kind of liked. And you did too."
"I guess I did. Yes, I did. I really did." He told Ziffrin
of his final telephone conversation with Zella Flowers.
"That's what I mean, she was a good Joe. What about
"He gave me the creeps, he always did. I pegged him
as fag the first time I ever saw him. He was like some teach-
ers I knew in school. And he was on the make for me, I
wouldn't deny that. But the other day I couldn't help but
feel sorry for him. He was convinced that somehow or other
I was responsible for all his bad luck. I was persecuting
him. It was ten years since I'd seen the son of a bitch, but
he blamed me for all his troubles. About Zella, he had rea-
THE BIG LAUGH
son to be sore at me. But what other bad luck did he have
that I was responsible for?"
"He had a fixation about you. It didn't make any
difference whether you saw him or not, Hube. How many
days a year could he pick up a paper and not see your name
somewhere? That's a fixation he had. He hated you, talked
about you all the time, but he was in love with you."
"What are you thinking?"
"A long time ago," said Hubert Ward, and told of the
parti a trois with Ruskin and the girl whose name he could
not now recall.
"Oh, well" said Ziffrin. "You insulted his manhood,
his womanhood, his faghood, his everything else. No
wonder he hated you. And he never made any real dough
out of you, don't overlook that. I heard that story, only he
told it different. The way he told it, he laid the dame, but
that I found hard to believe. That I wouldn't buy, but I
didn't say anything. You know Marty was a friend of my
wife Sylvia, and that gang she pals around with. The Com-
munist intellectuals. They never had any use for you. You
can be lucky they don't know what I know. I mean about
you and Zella, or Marty pulling a gun on you. They'd
throw a bucket of shit at you right now if they could."
"You believed I was a fag. When did you stop believ-
"I didn't say that. But I used to hear Marty as much as
say you were his boy friend, and you wouldn't be the first
actor that some ugly little guy like Marty helped along in
his career. I could name you a dozen."
JOHN O HARA
"I could name you a dozen."
"Sure you could. Get a couple English actors letting
their hair down sometime and youll think everybody's
queer. That London must be a fags' paradise, to hear them
talk. Personally I never had a man go for me, not since I
grew up. In the tenement where I lived an old guy used to
give us kids pennies to let him play with our pecker, but
he was just a dirty old man and the mothers finally got wise
to him and a bunch of them one night tied him up and cut
off his beard. He moved away, or the next thing they were
going to pour scalding hot water over him. With women,
though, I always seem to catch a lot of them at the right
moment. And not all dogs, either. I probably get more tail
in a year than any you handsome fellows. Marty used to
say it right in front of Sylvia. 'The big laugh in this town is
an ugly bastard like Joe Ziffrin or I getting more tail than
these pretty boys like Hubert Ward/ Everything was the
big laugh with Marty. But how many times did anybody
ever see Marty laugh at anything? And who's the big laugh
on now, the poor son of a bitch?"
We have come now to the end of this chronicle. It is
not, of course, the end of the story of Hubert Ward, which
has not yet ended. He is around, and there is enough left
of the big reputation to keep his vanity warm and his
hopes alive. Thirty years of top billing in the show-business
world makes a man hard to forget, and the public do not
want to forget. A movie star's fame is mysteriously endur-
ing; he is remembered and recognized well past his prime;
his reputation is like the mysterious longevity of popular
songs. A 1962 gathering of men and women in their thirties
will unanimously remember the tune and most of the words
of "Smiles," which was fourteen years old before the oldest
man in the audience was born. A 1962 gathering of men
and women in their twenties will instantly recognize the
JOHN O HARA
name Hubert Ward, although most of them have never
seen a Hubert Ward movie in a theater. They know who he
is, and so long as they continue to know who he is he has
his vanity and his hopes. ("You know who sat across from
me on the plane? Hubert Ward. Honestly." "You know who
I saw getting gas on the Parkway? Hubert Ward, in a
Jaguar." "Guess who put Ma's suitcase up on the rack. Hu-
bert Ward, the movie star. That big heavy suitcase." "You
know who I think that is, dancing with the Stribling girl?
I think that's Hubert Ward's son by his first wife. I'm al-
most positive. Anyway, he looks enough like him.")
Vanity? It needs no explanation. Hopes? The hopes of
any actor. Top top billing in an all-star cast, a part as long
as Hamlet, notices that can be framed, a play that will
close to standees whenever the actor chooses to close the
play, followed by a movie production with another but
different all-star cast, with Hubert Ward the only actor
carrying over from the stage play. It will not happen, be-
cause Hubert Ward will not let it happen. He will always
do something to defeat his own hopes.
It is his form of self-destruction, equal in intensity to
his instinct for self-protection. He was a rogue who had
his middle period of respectability, that lasted only so long
as Nina made respectability comfortable for him, that
ended when Nina wearied of him. But his instinct for self-
destruction compelled him to abandon the habits of re-
spectability in spite of its rewards. His refusal to believe
that Nina was not having an affair with Michael Tremaine
brought about an affair that was not satisfactory to Nina
or to Tremaine, but made it impossible for her to deny
THE BIG LAUGH
that technically Tremaine had been her lover. Hubert
Ward's marriage to the English actress Patricia Stanford
was an act of defiance that even she recognized as such,
and she made him pay dearly in money and in public
affronts to his vanity, and in the loss of his friendship with
Doris Arlington. ("I'd of sooner married you myself than
see you married to that Limehouse slut. For a wedding
present I'll send you a roll of toilet paper.") He was given
odd jobs and a major's commission in the Air Force, a piece
of luck that kept him in England for two years and sus-
pended the personality attacks that could have caused him
permanent damage inside the movie industry. He came
home with silver leaves and a slightly dubious Air Medal,
and was put right to work to cash in on his military service.
His marriage in 1951 to Mary Jo Kitzmiller, widow of both
Roy Ed Kitzmiller of Houston and Joe T. Biggs of San An-
tonio, can be regarded as successful because, in Mary Jo's
words, "Hubie and I don't figure to cramp one another's
style, if you know what I mean and I'm sure you dew." It
would be supererogatory to say that this marriage has very
little to do with respectability. It would be accurate to say
that Hubert Ward has logged many more hours in Mary
Jo's private aircraft than in bombers in 1943-44. The Hu-
bert Wards have not missed a Kentucky Derby since Count
Turf's year and to date their most serious quarrel has been
over Hubert Ward's inability to wangle an invitation to
Grace Kelly's wedding.
Mary Jo fully understands Hubert's reluctance to
spend much time in Houston; she feels the same way
about San Antonio, where Joe T. Biggs's five brothers live.
JOHN O HARA
Consequently the Hubert Wards maintain a house in
Palm Beach that they call home, and apartments at the
Waldorf, the Paris Ritz, the Bel- Air in Los Angeles, and a
cottage in Saratoga Springs. At all these residences the
Hollywood Reporter and weekly Variety are delivered by
airmail if necessary throughout the year, so that Hubert
Ward is never more than a day or two late with the news
of show business. Mary Jo's formula for avoiding unhappi-
ness over money matters was stated on the day they took
out their marriage license: "111 let you keep all you have,
and you let me keep all I have." On the one occasion of his
proposing that she might want to invest some money in a
motion picture production she said, "You can ask Judge
Blaylock, but I don't think he'll go for it." Sam Blaylock,
her Houston lawyer, expressed his opposition in such cour-
teous terms that Hubert Ward said it was a pleasure to
hear him say no, if that was what he was saying. "Then I'll
say no, if you'd rather," said Blaylock.
Even in the jet age it takes time to get from place to
place, and Hubert Ward's year is segmented by travel and
the brief stopovers in California, Texas, Florida, Kentucky,
New York, and France. He has long since learned the
names of the permanent servants in their various establish-
ments maintained by Mary Jo, and half a dozen times a
year he accepts their welcomes and farewells as genu-
inely cordial, which in some cases they are. He is Hubert
Ward the movie star, and no son of a bitch can take
that away from him.
Ha ha ha ha ha.
The big laugh, main
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